• March 9, 2011

    Opening Round

  • Emma Donoghue

    3Bad Marie

    Marcy Dermansky

  • Judged by

    Jennifer Weiner

Bad Marie

So here we go: two books about mothers, or a mother stand-in, and young children. Two stories about kids in peril, two novels with a microscopic focus on the details that make up a preschooler’s life: mac-and-cheese lunches and naptime rituals, insipid kiddie books about anthropomorphized construction machinery, and how to tell if you’ve breast-fed for too long. Seriously, Morning News, I don’t have enough of this in my real life?

By now, everyone knows what Emma Donoghue’s Room is all about. Which is unfortunate: I would give just about anything to not have read the reviews, to have dipped into those first pages not knowing (SPOILER ALERT) that the idyllic closeness that five-year-old Jack describes during a day-in-the-life with his funny, resourceful, creative Ma—the beloved routines, the exercise and the craft projects, the memory games and the sing-a-longs and the snake made out of eggshells and the way she’s never more than a few feet away—is the result not of Ma having recently read The Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother, but of an unspeakable crime: Ma and Jack are imprisoned in the 11-by-11-foot room of the title. Ma has been there for years. Jack is the child of her rapist.

The first ominous hint that Room isn’t the paradise Jack imagines comes when Jack, blithely describing his day, gets to the part where Ma stands beneath the skylight holding a lamp “and everything bright, then snap and dark again. Light again, she makes it last three seconds then dark, then light for just a second….She does this in the night. I think it helps her get to sleep again.”

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I heard the premise of Room and thought, “no thanks.” As the mother of young children, I could barely read the coverage of the Josef Fritzl case without wanting to cry. Why on earth would I want to spend time with a piece of fiction that callously appropriates one of the worst things any mother could imagine?

But Room grabbed me from its very first pages, and soon I was entranced and impressed with the way Ma manages to fill their days with fun and improving activities, and how Jack sees the world, in which each bit of Room is a friend with its own name (“I get on Rocker to take a pin from Kit on Shelf, minus one means now there’ll be zero left of the five.”)

Jack is a delight, a precocious, observant little boy who emerges as one of the narrators that great fiction gives us too rarely, with a one-of-a-kind view of the world and a vivid, expressive language all his own.

Here is Jack, rolled in a rug, playing dead, contemplating his escape: “Something pressing on me, that must be Ma’s hand. She needs me to be Super Prince JackerJack, so I stay extra still. No more moving. I’m Corpse, I’m the Count, no, I’m his friend even deader, I’m all stiff like a broken robot with a power cut.”

“Do real five-year-olds talk like this?,” a few critics quibbled. To which I’d say, “Really, does anyone want to spend an entire book hearing the voice of an honest-to-God five year old?” Because I can assure you, it’s a lot of fart-and-booger jokes, short on refreshing observations and brilliant turns of phrase and long on the “Can we watch SpongeBob now?”

Donoghue shines in her thoughtful consideration of what happens, emotionally and physically, to a mother and son in such close quarters, and what happens when they escape them. Jack, never having encountered stairs, is forced to bump between floors on his bottom; his skin, having never been exposed to sunlight, burns painfully in spite of layers of clothing, sunglasses, and sunscreen.

Room isn’t a perfect book. Like many non-American writers who set their books in the States, Donoghue doesn’t always get the slang quite right. Some of Ma’s expressions (“safe as houses,” “the spit of me,” ) seem more British than American, as do the curried chickpeas her captor brings for lunch.

The book’s second half, once Jack and Ma’s world opens up, doesn’t quite measure up to the potent force of their time in captivity, and once Room’s doors are opened, some of Ma’s actions seem inconsistent with the smart, resourceful woman we’ve come to know.

Still, the book is, to resort to a cliché, unputdown-able, and it raises fascinating questions: What is a mother’s obligation to her child? How much of her independence must a mother sacrifice for a son, or a daughter’s, well-being? How do you survive hardship? How do you survive joy? I agree with all the critics who put it on their year-end best-of lists, and think that Room is a book that will endure for many years to come.

If Room’s narrator is instantly lovable, Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie is the opposite. This book comes out swinging, looking for trouble, breaking the rules.

It’s devoutly in the school of tell, don’t show—and one of the things it tells you, over and over, is that the heroine has a really great rack. Its heroine, the possessor of said rack, is defiantly dislikable, just out of jail and swilling whiskey on the job. By the book’s third page she’s drunk and naked in the tub with the two-year-old she’s paid to care for, displaying herself for her employer’s husband’s delectation.

A few pages later, with young Caitlin napping the way children often do in fiction and hardly ever do when you need them to in real life, the husband takes her up on the implicit offer:

“The babysitter,” Benoit said.

“The husband.”

They understood each other, the situation.

Language like this reminds you that you are The Reader, midway through The Novel, a fact you are never encouraged nor, really, permitted, to forget.

In the wake of the hookup, Marie, Benoit, and Caitlin jet off to Paris. Benoit reconnects with an old love turned film star, and Marie discovers the burdens of full-time custody in a place where she doesn’t speak the language. She ditches Benoit, hops a train to Nice, and encounters yet another movie star (this one’s American, “a young man wearing ripped jeans and aviator sunglasses, reading Ulysses.”) Eventually, Marie and Caitlin end up in Mexico, home land of Marie’s lost love, where her time-sweetened memories give way to painful reality

Bad Marie reads like it was written with autotune set to “Mary Gaitskill.” (And I mean this as a description, not an insult.) Many of Gaitskill’s trademarks are there, from the flattened language to the unlikable protagonist to the sinister underpinnings of sex and menace. It’s a world where grownups are savages, and children, even worse. (“Caitlin grinned. Caitlin was happy when she got her way. She seemed to get her way most of the time.”). The men are duplicitous and weak, other women are competition, the sex has more to do with power than affection, and everyone behaves badly.

The story is plagued by improbable coincidences: The author of Marie’s all-time favorite book—the one she found in the prison library which, bien sûr, stocks French fiction in translation—is married to her childhood frenemy, a cardboard-thin workaholic named Ellen. That Ellen and Benoit have no reason to share as much as a cup of coffee, let alone a life, is something even Marie is forced to acknowledge. Wealthy movie stars, flush with cash and with spare bedrooms at the ready, appear at the precise moment the plot requires them. At times, the book is as unpleasant as a literary version of Jackass, as when Marie and her entourage encounter a toothless, scabby, starving cat named Ludivine: “Mucus was dripping out of both of the cat’s eyes. It went straight for Benoit, pressed itself against his legs and started to meow, the loudest meow Marie had ever heard a cat make. Marie had to suppress the urge to kick it.”

Sometimes, reading can be as voluptuous and embracing as slipping into a warm bath. Reading Bad Marie is more like picking up a penknife and stabbing yourself repeatedly in the thigh. It’s not what you’d call a good time.

And yet. And yet. Caitlin and Marie somehow break the bonds of two dimensions, and authorial intervention, and emerge as engaging characters. The bond between caretaker and child deepens as the story trips across the globe, the screws of terror ratcheting ever tighter. Will Marie commit the ultimate female transgression? Will Caitlin survive Marie? Will Marie survive herself?

In spite of everything—the flat-as-a-crepe prose, the horrible dying cat, the insistent display of the author’s bag of tricks—I raced through the last 30 pages, desperate to find out the answers.

Room has gotten plenty of attention this year. It was reviewed twice by the Times and made that paper’s year-end best-of list, along with a slew of others, but the author remained curiously unprofiled and uncelebrated. I couldn’t tell you, for example, what color dress New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman wore to the tea party Donoghue’s publisher held to celebrate her book’s publication, because if there was such a party, the Times wasn’t there to breathlessly recount its details. There were no news items about the build-up to the book’s publication, no adoring profiles, no stories analyzing the news stories and adoring profiles, no magazine cover story proclaiming her a Great American Author (of course not! She’s British, now living in Canada!) [actually, she’s Irish —ed.], no invitation to sit on a talk-show host’s couch and talk about how she came to create such a brilliant book

As for Bad Marie, published as a paperback original, few papers bothered reviewing it at all, although the Times was kind enough to include it in a round-up of books about nannies.

What made these books—or, at least, their authors—so hard for the critics to embrace? Why didn’t they get the attention that translates into sales? Why so much love for Franzen and Shteyngart and hardly any ink for Emma Donoghue and Marcy Dermansky?

I blame the children.

After all, writing about unhappiness in the suburbs places you in the tradition of Great American Novelists from Updike to Cheever to Roth. Creating dystopian fiction locates you in the land of Orwell and Huxley. But there’s not much in the canon about the day-to-day details of the lives of mothers and young children. And whose tradition are you in when you’re writing about mothers, children, and the monsters who imprison and torture them? Stephen King? John Fowles? V.C. Andrews?

One imagines the questions when such books land on the editor’s desk: Does this book involve preschool children? Was it written by Tom Perrotta? Is the author a woman? Does she have little kids herself? Does this bear any resemblance to a mommyblog? Does the author have a mommyblog? Does this manuscript smell, faintly, of the diaper pail? Can’t I just write about Charles Bock some more?

When women write literary fiction about little children, fiction that includes the quotidian details of childcare—the snack preparation, the sunscreen application, the way a poorly-packed diaper bag can turn any day into a disaster—they have to work harder than Ginger Rogers, dancing backward in heels, to show that they’re writing Serious Literature in spite of what’s perceived as unserious subject matter.

So: Room wins the round, Bad Marie is worth a read. Now that that uncomfortable bit of hierarchical, phallocentric, dichotomous business is out of the way, let me add that my hope for Room is that its excellence will prompt critics to look at their own biases and make room for more, and varied subjects, and more, and varied kinds of writers, when they start deciding who’s worthy of their attention.


Jennifer Weiner is the author of eight books, including Good in Bed, In Her Shoes, Best Friends Forever, and Fly Away Home. She is a graduate of Princeton University and lives in Philadelphia with her family. She can be found on Twitter. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “I wrote about Room and did an email Q and A on my blog with Emma Donoghue this fall, with a giveaway of my books to readers who bought it that week. I haven’t met any of the other authors.”