January is a notoriously quiet month. The holidays are over and no one has any money for shopping or going out to dinner. If reading more, or at all, is part of your New Year’s resolution — and why shouldn’t it be? — here are three short but fantastic books to get you started: Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith, Before by Irini Spanidou and The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys.
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith (Canongate)
Ali Smith’s new novel, Girl Meets Boy, part of Canongate’s distinguished Myth Series, is based on the myth of Iphis from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the myth, Iphis is a girl who is raised as a boy. She is later turned into a man so she can marry Ianthe, a woman she has fallen in love with.
In Smith’s adaptation, sisters Imogen and Anthea couldn’t be less alike. In the first scene, their grandfather begins a story with "Let me tell you about when I was a girl." While Imogen can’t get past the gender reversal, Anthea accepts it as a minor detail.
These differences continue as the sisters grow up and start working together at the advertising firm Pure. Shortly after they begin a campaign for bottled water, Anthea finds a beautiful boy (who turns out to be a girl) writing graffiti on one of Pure’s signs: "DON’T BE STUPID. WATER IS A HUMAN RIGHT. SELLING IT IN ANY WAY IS MORALLY WRO—.”
The moment is transformative for Anthea. Not only does she agree with the sentiment, but she falls in love with the scribe, Robin. All her ideas on gender and identity are confirmed: "He was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life. But he looked really like a girl. She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life."
Cut to corporate-minded, image-obsessed and priggish Imogen, who is out for a run and trying to process her own transformative moment: catching her sister Anthea in an intimate embrace with Robin. "(My sister is A GAY)" is the first of Imogen’s many parenthetical contemplations.
Imogen’s reflections range from hilarious ("I should have known when she always liked songs that had I and you in them, instead of he and I") to absurd ("It is my mother’s fault for splitting up with our father. But if that’s true then I might also be a gay"). And she makes some interesting cultural references ("My sister is going to grow up into a dissatisfied older predatory totally dried-up abnormal woman like Judi Dench in that film Notes on a Scandal").
In the meantime, Anthea feels anything but dissatisfied or abnormal: "I was like a species that hadn’t even realized it lived in a near-desert till one day its taproot hit water." She leaves her job at Pure and joins Robin’s crusade to spread the message that advertising is "a new kind of myth-making."
Smith is brilliant at allowing the structure and language of each section to reflect the character’s point of view. Imogen’s thoughts are primarily written in parentheses, which is how she believes the world sees her — parenthetically, just as a side note. When she too finds love and finally begins to understand her sister, Imogen considers, "I have thought for a long time that the way my clothes hang on me is more important than me inside them."
Anthea, on the other hand, rhapsodizes about love and identity — as well as language’s limited ability to describe them — in prose that reads like poetry: "I was a he was a we were a girl and a girl and a boy and a boy, we were blades, were a knife that could cut through myths."
In this stunning gem of a book, Smith exposes the myths surrounding us all — in the pages of our books, buried in our hearts and, it seems, sprayed across our billboards.
Before by Irini Spanidou (Knopf)
Speaking of myths, Irini Spanidou’s superb new book, Before, takes on a big one: beauty. It’s difficult to get readers to sympathize with a character whose primary struggle in life is her prettiness, but Spanidou manages to do just that with the vulnerable and young Beatrice James.
Beatrice’s glow is like a paper lantern: "exquisitely painted, easily torn." She possesses the kind of beauty that makes people — men and women alike — want to love and rescue her, and often for all the wrong reasons.
It’s the early ’70s and Beatrice is living in SoHo, surrounded by trash, graffiti and anti-war posters. On the surface she has everything going for her: beauty, intelligence, style, a moderate but sustainable trust fund and an entourage of admirers.
It is this last asset, however, that is perhaps the most troublesome for Beatrice. Certainly it is the most misleading. "An ugly woman," she thinks, "knew she was loved for herself when she was loved. Beauty … beauty got you laid easy enough, that was for certain. Beauty got you f—ed."
Among Beatrice’s dubious admirers is her husband, Ned, a struggling painter whose love of her beauty and wealth has turned to hatred. Their relationship is thorny. Both still hold on to sex as a means of connection — Ned to show his resentment and Beatrice to show just about everything else.
Eventually Beatrice understands what’s at the core of their intimacy: "These days he had sex with her just to get off, and it was like he was spitting on the ground to affirm contempt. It had gotten so she wanted him to f— her for the peace of knowing there was no lower place for her to sink."