What Old Book Do I Read If … ?

by Carrie Hill Wilner

My family is weird. Half of them don’t speak to the other half; there was apparently serious family money at one point but now there is none; a cousin might have gotten a secret divorce (or else murdered her spouse, who has disappeared); and there is some legitimate religious fanaticism to throw into the mix. On top of the crazy stuff, there are the petty jealousies and one-upmanship, partly stemming from the fact that some of the cousins are very physically attractive, while others aren’t, and that some of the cousins are successful in their careers, while others aren’t (and the Venn diagram of these categories is constantly changing). A family reunion is coming up. What should I read to help me cope?

Oh! Oh! I know! We’re going to creep into the cave of layered shadows here, are you ready? You won’t feel better about yourself or your family by the time you’re done, because this is not “what self-help book do I read,” but you will certainly have a . . . perspective. You will think a thing. That is my personal guarantee to you. “Do what I say, and you will think a thing.”

Flipping through my mind-catalogue of family reunion books, I had a flicker of inspiration that I managed to tease into a state of frothing enthusiasm and conviction. If you have read Emile Zola at all, you probably know him as the French guy who wrote about people’s horrible lives and/or did the right thing during the Dreyfuss Affair. Did you know that all those people with their horrible lives are part of the same family, though, and Zola’s ouvre traces them throughout time, as family and economic/political systems and the occasional personal “choice” or “action” weave themselves into something resembling but not quite the same as fate? There are basically a million books in the Rougon-Macquart cycle following the families of the children (legitimate and illegitimate) of one woman, Adelaide Fouque, who is described as possessed of various “nervous disorders” but whom we would today call “a lot of fun” and “epileptic.”

Her disorder manifests in different ways in each of her children and their descendants, all against the backdrop of the Second Empire. It’s not really a family saga, because the novels stand on their own (mostly), but it is a family saga in the way family stories really are: discursive, weird, and oblique. What I think would be a really cool thing to do is to read a few of the Rougon-Macquart novels — maybe one about each branch? And then read the one about Adelaide and her marriages. And that’s YOUR story — Adelaide herself is the family reunion! God, isn’t that a more interesting way of dealing with it than reading about who’s trying to worm their way into what will again? Like I said, almost any selections from the cycle will work, though make sure all three branches (the Rougons, the poor Macquarts, and the less-poor Macquarts) are represented.

Here are my off-the cuff thoughts — Le Docteur Pascal for the Rougons (and everyone), Au Bonheur Des Dames (crossover between Rougons and less-poor Macquarts, also, it’s about shoppppppinnnnng!!!!!!!) and either Germinal or L’Assomoir for the poor Macquarts (and also for killing yourself after?). THEN, go back and read Les Fortunes Des Rougons (the Adelaide book). While you read, keep a family tree handy for reference. Some editions print one as an index or frontispiece or some book word, but they’re also all over the internet. Look, here’s an early, incredibly beautiful and totally useless-to-the-reader early version Zola himself drew.

Basically, you should be able to show up at your family reunion with your own color-coded chart of exactly how everyone has fucked everyone else up. Not only will you win, but you’ll finally belong.

I just read a brainless book that I hated, and it was all shopping, shoes, shopping, sex, hatred, bitches, shopping, sex, bitches, bitches, bitches. It went on forever, just like this endless fucking book. Ugh. I need something chewy, something to clutch (metaphorically?), something good and wholesome and good for my brain, something to read while wearing a flannel nightgown and tucking my knees up into it and looking out across the heath or whatever (metaphorically). But also please can it not be so boring that after the first 20 pages of pretending to be really into it I put it away because it’s a little bit more boring than I can handle?

The first 20 pages of big, important books for your soul are a real problem, I know. Even The Best Book (LINK TO THE BEST BOOK GOES HERE) is maybe not at its strongest in the first 20 pages. (As long as we’re talking Charlotte Brontë (as long as = forever), Jane Eyre has The Best Beginning of All Books, but that hardly counts as a recommendation. Telling you to read Jane Eyre is pretty much saying “step 1, try to make sure you have eyeballs.”

So we want a compelling opening, some intellectual challenge, maybe some big, sticky ideas like “goodness,” or “fate,” and maybe a bucolic setting? The last because it’s easier to metaphorically gaze across the heath when you’re imagining the heath — otherwise, you risk some kind of crazy fugue state wherein you’re imagining yourself gazing across the heath while imagining sooty mine towns. (How much of the fugue state phenomenon in general can be explained by such risky approaches to old novels? She was lost for days. When she finally came to, she was wearing a flannel nightgown and driving someone’s old Le Sabre across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The passenger seat was occupied by the collected works of George Meredith and, no way around it, a dead dog.)

So. . . I am going to take a bit of a risk here, because it’s not for everyone, but Clarissa? Main caveat, it’s really long. Clarissa Explains It All, Literally All Of It, She Doesn’t Forget Any Parts Of It. Also, it was written in 1748, so the language might be a bit more old-fashioned than you’re used to even if you’re used to some old-fashioned language. But it’s an epistolary novel, and the letters themselves are pretty short and break it all down nice and slow-like, so it’s rich, complex, and satifying without being impenetrable.

Oh boy, that sentence is totally in/appropriate in the context of talking about Clarissa in ways I didn’t even mean when I wrote it. (We had this substitute teacher in high school who was really into freewriting but also had some indeterminate accent, and pronounced “pens” like “penezzz” I swear, and it was always “Take out your penezzz,” “Do not lift your penezzz from the paper for five minutes! Whatever comes from your penezzz, go with it!” “Okay, lift your penezzzzzz!” Which, can you even imagine the reaction of a room of 15-year olds? And now, I am that substitute. De te fabula narratur, riiight?) Basically the story turns around Clarissa’s defiance both before and after her rape by the libertine Lovelace. A lot of the freaking out about virtue will feel unfamiliar, but her search for and attachment to personal integrity in the context of stupid community expectations is still pretty exhilarating.

There are four correspondents, and it’s a psychological novel, not that heavy on the setting (I mean, it’s got plenty of land and manors and all that), but I still count it as quiet country-time, because I mean, they’re writing LETTERS. You obviously write letters at your sun-and-ink dappled desk in your cottage, right? You don’t write letters in the city. And then WE can write letters, right? About whether she is a Christian or Romantic heroine? Is your favorite feeling melancholy or indignation? If you had to be one age forever, what would it be? Can I braid your hair?

Also, no worries about the beginning, Clarissa is way easy to start. Maybe easier than it should be, considering that it’s such a commitment. First line: “I am extremely concerned, my dearest friend, for the disturbance that have happened in your family. I know how it must hurt you to become the subject of the public talk: and yet, upon an occasion so generally known, it is impossible but that whatever relates to a young lady, whose distinguished merits have made her the public care, should engage every body’s attention.” OH MY GOD, WHAT HAPPENED? Public talk! Yes, please! Quit your jobs, leave your families, board your pets, this is the next six weeks of your life. TO THE NIGHTGOWNS, VAPID TRAMPS!

Do you need an old book? Write Carrie for advice.

Previously: Which George Eliot Heroine Are You?

Carrie Hill Wilner loves to read.