Happy Memorial Day, Story366! I have to admit that I fully messed up this posting, as I should have done something veteran-related today, or at least Memorial-Day themed, like so many TV cable channels playing war movies all weekend. Today would have been a great day for Phil Klay’s book, which I did about a month ago, and since I’m in Chicago, away from the home base, from my huge stacks of to-read books, I wasn’t able to rectify the fact that I didn’t plan ahead. I scanned the small pile I’d brought and nothing on the pile screams “military,” nor does anything even whisper, “Indy 500.” So, I apologize: No Memorial Day-type story today. That doesn’t mean that I don’t respect the hell out of the men and woman who served and are serving: I do. One of my nephews was just deployed to Kuwait this past week, so my heart and mind are more with the plight of soldiers and their families more than they ever have been.
As it turns out, the book I’m writing about today, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You by Amy Bloom, from Vintage, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is more in tune with what’s been going on in my life as of late, is very personally themed. This weekend, I’ve been mentioning my sister, who had a couple of surgeries last week (but is home now and recovering quite well), putting me in the mindset of hospitals, priorities, and mortality. I’ve read the first two stories in Bloom’s book and both feature protagonists who are aiding loved ones going through extensive medical procedures. Both stories are set, primarily, in hospitals, lots of doctors and nurses and machines hooked up to people, the same visions I’d seen this past week through my sister’s phases of prep and recovery. Before cracking Bloom’s book, I had no idea that this is what her stories would be about, so it was serendipitous timing, I guess.
The lead story, the title story, is about a mom who is seeing her daughter transform into her son, a story about gender reassignment surgery, how a mother deals with it. Bloom’s book was published in 2000, so it’s ages before Caitlin, but Bloom’s protagonist, Jane, is full accepting, fully understanding—she even pays for the procedure. The story’s not about her wrestling with her child’s decision at all. It’s more procedural, more about going through the motions, how she can be supportive while still living her own life. It would have been easy to write about “A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You,” but instead, I’m writing about the second story.
“Rowing to Eden” again features a supportive protagonist who nurses someone through medical trauma. In this case, it’s Ellie, and she’s nursing her lifelong best friend, Mai, who is going through breast cancer treatment, including a double mastectomy. Ellie is not only Mai’s best friend, but she has also been through breast cancer, losing her left breast, Mai at her bedside the entire time. It’s quid pro quo, a touching depiction of what friendship really is.
Between Ellie and Mai stands Charley, Mai’s loyal but ham-handed husband, whose care skills include bringing her food (which she doesn’t want) and being there (which she doesn’t always want, either). He’s well meaning, but of course, he doesn’t have the connection to Mai and this particular condition, Ellie’s empathy. And Charley knows that—there’s no way he can’t. On top of that, he believes—since Ellie is a lesbian and so loyal—that Ellie has been in love with Mai the entire time; he has always assumed that part of her life has been watching him and Mai happy together, sad, anxious, jealous. This confrontation is a tense moment in the story, one of the climaxes—an elephant in the room openly addressed—and Bloom handles it really well, making it a civil and earnest discussion instead of an angry or accusatory one. Maybe everyone’s just exhausted from the cancer ordeal, or maybe the exactitude of the situation is gray enough to make Charley’s theory at least partially true. It’s hard to tell, and that’s Bloom’s skillful doing.
“Rowing to Eden” is a long story (as is “A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You”), thirty or so pages, giving Bloom a lot of room to really flesh out her characters. The story takes place over several days, several hospital visits, several treatments, and the characters and their plots all have time to develop, evolve. She also isn’t afraid to break from Ellie’s point of view, as we seep into Charley, albeit briefly, a couple of times, and we also get a long passage from Mai, where we find out her particular wants and needs more than we could from any dialogue she’d have with Ellie. Ellie is the main character and we’re in her head the most, though, as she’s the most interesting person here, both the outsider and the insider, the primary and secondary person for Mai, depending on where you are in the story.
This little triangle is enough plot to give away, but the ending has another climax, another tense and remarkable confrontation, the kind that’s so perfect, I’m not sure how I didn’t foresee it, but once I was done with the story, deemed it the obvious and only resolution to everything. It’s beautiful, and I love how it reveals an intimacy that exposes the true heart of the story, Ellie’s true self. “Rowing to Eden” is a fantastic story—and yes, Intro to Fiction students, a cancer story—a remarkable character sketch of not just one person, but three people thrust together into the worst of circumstances.
So glad to spend this morning with Amy Bloom and her excellent collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. Now I have to get ready to go to Wrigley, and then after, some kind of superhero movie—I’m not sure which—with my brother and nephew. First thing tomorrow: Back to Missouri and Karen, the boys, and kitty and bunny. Happy Memorial Day!