Twofer Review: Ines and Emily, alone and together

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The Twofer book review usually pairs two completely random books to see what kind of interesting things emerge when they’re reviewed together. I have to confess that today’s pairing is not completely random. I sat down to review Ines of My Soul and thought, I think I’ll wait and review it with Emily, Alone. Why did I think that? I have no idea, but part of the fun of the twofer review is figuring out exactly why in my head I saw these books as connected in interesting ways.

Ines of My Soul is another book by Isabel Allende. I loved Eva Luna, and Allende is one of my good friend’s favorite authors, so she lent me this book to read. My reading of this novel was interrupted by a 10 day trip to the beach, without much effect. This seems to be a nice thing about Allende novels. You can read them slowly, langorously, you might say. Her novels flow like a slow trip down a river in a raft or inner tube. A tropical and exotic river, granted, but there are really no waterfalls, no white water, no alligators lurking in the water. Which is not to say that nothing exciting happens, but there’s a tranquility to the life unfolding before you.

In Ines of My Soul, we get the story of Ines, a Spanish seamstress born in the 16th century who follows her husband across the ocean to the New World of Peru. With her lover, she ends up playing an integral part in the founding of Chile. As with Eva Luna, this novel is very much about strong and powerful women, but strong and powerful in a uniquely Allende-type way, which means that they are also sensual and gentle and refreshingly human. Both of the Allende novels I’ve read would be interesting to read in a women’s studies class, to contemplate what makes an empowered woman.

Ines of My Soul gives fascinating insight into what it might have been like to have been one of the earliest colonists in Peru and Chile. Allende does a great job teaching us about the native peoples of those two countries as well, while still retaining the realism of what Ines would have thought of the natives. She admires them, but they also killed her lover and continue to try to kill her and all the other colonists. So there’s some ambiguity there, to say the least.

Emily, Alone picks up several years after the novel, Wish You Were Here, and follows Emily through her life in Pittsburgh with her sister-in-law, Arlene. I loved Wish You Were Here, but I’m not sure if Emily would have been the character out of that book I would have chosen to write more about. What made O’Nan say to himself, “Gee, there’s another novel out there about Emily.” or “I really want to write more about Emily.” The dedication for this book says, “For my mother, who took me to the bookmobile.” I wonder how much Emily is like O’Nan’s mother, and how much Emily is like all our mothers.

There’s not much to tell you about the plot of Emily, Alone. Arlene has a spell and spends some time in the hospital, but she’s okay. Emily starts to drive again and buys a Subaru. Emily’s dog gets sick. She plants some flowers. As in Wish You Were Here, nothing really happens, and yet the book is fascinating.

Three things these books have in common:

Both of these books are studies in anti-plot. Of course things happen, but I’d put them in the plot-light category. At no point are you turning the pages eagerly to see how some situation resolves itself. There’s no suspenseful and dramatic “what happens next” driving you through these books. Ines gets attacked by natives. We know, because she’s telling the story as an old woman, that she ends up marrying one of the characters we’ve already met, and we don’t know how exactly that happens, but there’ s a kind of calm sense of, “Well, we’ll find out about that around the next bend.” And yet you still want to keep reading.

O’Nan is the absolute master of making a book in which almost nothing at all happens incredibly engaging to read. Emily, Alone was more of a page-turner than Ines of My Soul, and there’s no sex, no native attacks, no founding of a nation. There’s just Emily puttering around her house and Pittsburgh. Since I’ve come out as a writer, I have to confess, I find this an amazing feat of writing. How do you make not much happening so incredibly readable?

I think the answer has to be the ability to create engaging characters. Ines and Emily are fleshy, like you can imagine sitting next to them in the coffee shop, even though neither of them ever would. You like knowing about them. Especially with Emily, I understand the things she feels. I care about what she feels, even though in real life, you’d probably not like Emily very much. Especially if she was your mother. Both of these books are studies in amazing character development, and proof that for me, characters win out over plot any day.

Second, these books are, rather obviously, both about women. Is that important? One of the things I try to emphasize in my sociology of gender course and my textbook is that we should be cautious of the power of the categories we create. We seem to be a people attuned to differences, and so we’re very interested in hearing about sex differences, even though even the largest sex difference that exists out there is not really that large. A sex difference is considered large when 53% of the scores for any given test (mathematical abilities, verbal abilities, etc) overlap.  This means most of the scores (over 50% overlap) and only 47% don’t overlap.  That’s still a lot of overlap.  We spend a lot of time interested in differences between men and women, but we’re not so interested in the differences between women and other women, or men and other men. But in fact, any two women are likely to be quite different from each other.

Case in point, Emily and Ines. Fictional characters, yes, but do these two have much in common as women? They certainly didn’t experience being women in the same way. Emily’s not overly concerned with the limitations she faced in her life as a woman, though Ines feels those fairly strongly. Taking a step back, you could certainly make an argument that though Emily may not feel it herself, her life was constrained in certain ways because she is a woman. I suspect one of the reasons I wanted to lump these two books together is precisely that they both center on women characters, but now I’m inclined to say, so what?

The third things these two books have in common is the supernatural, rather broadly defined. Allende is a magical realist. Dead husbands show up in her life as ghosts as a matter of course, and no one seems to think much of it. It’s not a big deal, not a central part of the novel, but interesting nonetheless. Stewart O’Nan is not, I think, a magical realist. But in writing the review for Wish You Were Here, I stumbled across a review in The New York Times. This review pointed out the menace that lurks at the edges of O’Nan’s books. They’re like Stephen King novels, where the writing is superb, but the weird and supernatural thing never happens. The cat doesn’t come back from the grave, the teenage girl doesn’t develop psychokinetic abilities, the car doesn’t become possessed. But you always have the feeling that something creepy might happen. In Wish You Were Here, Sarah might disappear. The missing gas station attendant might turn up dead. But they don’t.

This feeling is less present in Emily, Alone, but you are still waiting to see if something happens to Emily. Will Arlene keel over dead? Will Emily get sick? Will even her dog die? I don’t want to give anything away, but the answer is, no, largely none of those things will happen. Life goes on. And yet, these possibilities lurking in the corner kind of suffuse O’Nan’s novels. It’s not exactly the supernatural, but a kind of void in the air where the supernatural might have been. It’s like O’Nan in his writing actually makes a physical space composed of the things that might have happened, but did not. That’s kind of magical in and of itself.

Ways in which these books are different:

A different gender question: Does it matter that one of these books was written by a woman and one was not? Ines of My Soul is first person, and the premise is that at first she’s writing an account of her life, and then toward the end, dictating her life to her adopted daughter. Towards the end, Ines starts to engage in more reflection about her life, which seems to fit with the premise of someone at the close of their life looking back. The narrative becomes less sequential and linear; Ines trying to cram it all in.

Emily, Alone is third person, told in a sequence of short chapters that almost read like short stories strung together. Each little chapter is not always perfectly connected to what happened before. It’s as if a little window is opening and closing on Emily’s life at different moments.

Ines thinks about what it means to be a woman, and Emily largely does not. Is that because Allende is a woman and perhaps, a feminist, and O’Nan is not (a woman…who knows about the feminist part)? Probably not. I don’t care that O’Nan’s not concerned in his narrative with what it means for Emily to be a woman. I can fill that in for myself. And it’s okay that Allende does want to write about it. What I find interesting is that neither feels particularly more or less intimate. I know Emily and Ines pretty well, and in fact, I might say I know Emily a bit better even though it’s third person. That probably has to do with moving with her through even the most mundane details of her life.

I think where Allende’s feminism or self-conscioussness as a woman comes across is in the moments when it’s clear she wants to tell the story of the women who were involved in the colonization of the New World and the founding of the places she calls home (Peru and Chile). Ines herself emphasizes that while the men were out wandering the countryside, she and other women were engaged in the hard work of actually building the settlements that would become places like Santiago. They built the houses, raised the animals, planted the crops. They were indispensable to the hard work of making those places what they are today.

Which book I liked slightly better and why:

I have to say, there’s no twofer loser this time around. I love both of these books and would recommend
either one. Emily, Alone is only slightly more interesting to me because it’s just such an amazing and engaging character study. Emily is your boring, mundane neighbor. Your aunt that you dread visiting. The old lady in the parking lot whose driving so slowly. She is nobody. Nothing exciting. And yet, O’Nan makes her so. He makes her fascinating. This is an amazing feat of writing but also a profound statement about the world. Even Emily is interesting and has a story to tell.

Oh, I love the twofer. Proof that, as with people, two is generally better than one.

P.S.  Here’s an image from an interesting post about “riding the the tails of the bell curve.”  This is the distribution for men and women’s height.  What’s interesting here is that only at the very end of the tails of the curve is there no overlap between women and men.  The point is that, yes, there are a few men out there who are taller than any woman on the planet.  But they’re rare.  Mostly, men and women’s heights overlap a great deal.  Why do we focus on those people out on the extremes instead of everyone in the middle?

P.P.S.  An interesting aside about height differences specifically.  In the developed world, height differences between women and men have been converging over time; the average differences in height have gotten smaller over time.  Why?  Turns out even the “biological” difference in heights has a social component.  As preferences for male children in the developed world have lessened, girl children’s nutrition has improved, resulting in taller girls and women (nutrition is an important factor in height, which is why humans today are on average taller than humans in the past).  Yes, this means what you think it means.  In the past, families fed their daughters less and their sons more because sons were seen as more important than daughters.

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