Across the Page: October ’08 New Releases


This doesn’t happen often.
Three new releases that are all exceptionally engaging and distinct:
Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter,
a historical novel about a scandalous divorce; Rebecca Miller’s
Private Lives of Pippa Lee,
a contemporary recording of a quiet nervous breakdown; and Cristy C.
Road’s gripping debut graphic novel, Bad Habits.

The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

I had been looking forward to reading
The Sealed Letter
since interviewing the Irish novelist, playwright
and historian Emma Donoghue earlier this year, and I’m thrilled to
say that it was well worth the wait.

The Sealed Letter, Donoghue’s
sixth novel, is based on an actual 19th-century divorce case and scandal.
At the center of this mess is Emily (Fido) Faithfull, a young spinster,
if there ever was such a thing (“I have more pressing business to
wonder who’s looking at me”), and a businesswoman at
the forefront of the British women’s movement.

Fido’s relatively quiet Victorian life
is turned around when she runs into her old roommate and friend, Helen
Codrington, on the streets of London.
Though the two have not spoken since Helen left for Malta with her vice-admiral
husband, Harry, it turns out that each woman needs something from the
other, and their friendship quickly resumes.

Helen is delightfully deceptive and outrageous.
She uses Fido’s parlor to carry on an affair, and when Harry finally
acknowledges the obvious, Fido finds herself testifying in the messy
and very public divorce hearings.

The case is not as definitive as many
assumed, including Fido: “She deceives me over and over, and I let
her, I open my arms to gather her lies like blossoms.” The stakes
continue to rise as more gossip and evidence emerges
— including “stained clothing,” allegations of rape, and an inciting
letter that has the potential to change everything.

Donoghue, who has a Ph.D. in 18th-century
English literature, fills the The Sealed Letter with authentic
and precise historical details that bring the past alive, from the domestic
to the political to the social.

Donoghue has written other historical
novels, including Slammerkin
and Life Mask, but this is her first book about the 19th
century. Though the narratives do not intersect, Donoghue writes on
her website that she considers the three books as a “loose trilogy
of investigations of the British class system: the appalling poor in
erkin, the absurdly rich in Life Mask,
and now in The Sealed Letter,
the desperately respectable middle classes.”

With the publication of The Sealed
Harcourt will also release the paperback edition of Donoghue’s
previous novel, Landing, which just won an award from the Golden
Crown Literary Society for lesbian dramatic general fiction.

The Private Lives
of Pippa Lee
by Rebecca Miller (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Rebecca Miller photo credit: IFC Films

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
is the aptly titled story of a middle-aged woman whose life spirals
out of control when she relocates to a retirement community with her
elderly husband, Herb.

Pippa never quite cared about the 30-year
age difference between herself and Herb, a well-respected editor, until
he decided on the move. Marigold Retirement Village has gossipy neighbors,
its own stores, recreational classes and even an artificial lake. Though
she tries to fit in, Pippa can’t help but feel the “familiar arrogance
of youth, as if her age made her superior, as if it were her credit.”

It’s a major adjustment from their
cosmopolitan life in Manhattan, and strange things begin to happen shortly
after they arrive. One morning, Pippa wakes and finds chocolate cake
and peanut butter splattered across the kitchen table.
The next, she finds that half-smoked cigarette butts cover her car floor.

Convinced that this is the first sign
of Herb’s “descent into inanity,” Pippa is forced to confront
a far more complicated reality when a security camera they installed
reveals a different scenario. At the end of Part One, she wonders if
she might be on “the brink of a very quiet nervous breakdown.”

Pippa Lee’s early description of herself
as “one of those used cars that have been in a terrible accident [that
looks] perfectly fine on the outside, but the axel is bent” begins
to resonate in Part Two, which opens with a shift in point of view from
the third- to first-person that is more surprising than jarring.

The middle section of the book travels
back to Pippa’s earlier life as a child and young woman, before she
was a devoted wife and mother. The narrative pace quickens as she unravels
her past: her complex and dependant relationship with her mother, who
was addicted to the speed in diet pills; her first sexual experience
with a female friend; leaving home at 16
to live with her lesbian aunt and then participating in S&M photo
shoots with her aunt’s girlfriend; and the tragedy surrounding her
courtship with Herb.

Many of the chapters begin with Pippa
dreaming (“That night, Pippa dreamed she was driving into a dense
cloud of white moths”) or waking up (“A week later Pippa woke up
with one arm asleep”). Indeed, The Secret Lives of Pippa Lee
is about Pippa’s many transformations and identities. On the surface
her lives look very different, but
Miller brilliantly reveals Pippa’s core in honest, insightful and
often very funny prose.

Miller’s genius is both multifaceted
and seemingly hereditary. The daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and
photographer Inge Morath, she is married to actor Daniel Day-Lewis and
is an actress, film director and screenwriter. Her film Personal
Velocity: Three Portraits
, based on her short-story collection,
won the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award.

Miller will direct the film version of
The Secret Lives of Pippa Lee
, staring Robin Wright Penn, Julianne
Moore and Winona Ryder.


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