Across the Page: October ’08 New Releases

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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

The
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

(Harcourt)

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

Slamm
erkin, the absurdly rich in Life Mask,

and now in The Sealed Letter,

the desperately respectable middle classes.”

With the publication of The Sealed

Letter,
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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