When she looks back at that moment, Charlotte will always think about the way stories begin so, so much earlier than you realize, long before the first chapter. And she’ll think about the way stories continue, too, the way that words carry meaning, over the ages and every circumstance, through plagues and floods and wars, through falling and rising again. She’ll think about the way books can save you, and lead you through fog and deep lagoons, down twisting streets and dead ends, and away again, in a speedboat under the moon, white pages riding waves.
But she will also think about the missing books. The books that never were. The voices that fought to be heard but were never heard, or heard and then forgotten…She will imagine a ghost library of all the other books that aren’t there, and will never be there. All the voices and stories of women behind one kind of wall or another. Voices and stories stolen by thieves.
Before I write about this book and how it affected me, I have to write about an experience I had earlier this year which I continue to think about.
Our library had finally opened the auditorium we’ve been working on for decades. (Literally, they were fundraising for it when I started working there in 2008.) It has a beautiful open space in the front with lots of wall space for art. I happened to wander over there one day just after new art had been put up, and the librarian told me a bit about it. It was a painting by a local artist, and as the librarian (a friend!) spoke, I confess I paid more attention to the tone of her voice than I did about what she said about the piece. Because she sounded so respectful and admiring of the artist.
As she talked I found myself wondering…how does that happen? I think many people have creative impulses of some sort, be it painting or sculpture or literary pursuits or music. But how many of us actually pursue those impulses enough that we produce work that others want to interact with? And how do you, as a creative person, become someone whose work is admired by others? There is a certain type of confidence that successful creative types seem to have that I haven’t ever managed. I understand it takes work, dedication, commitment, and actually putting your pieces out into the world, but I also just wondered how that would feel. To know that people respected you for what you made, rather than feeling (like I do) that your creative pursuit is kind of a silly hobby you shouldn’t tell anyone about.
I thought about that moment a lot as I read the YA novel One Great Lie by Deb Caletti, which tells the story of Charlotte, who wins a scholarship to attend a writing workshop in Venice with her favorite writer, Luca Bruni. Charlotte is a descendant of a person who lived in Italy centuries ago; her family still owns a copy of the chapbook that contains her poetry, but not much is known about her. So we read the story of Charlotte exploring Venice as she comes to know that her literary hero is, in fact, an actual human being (likely not a very good or honorable one) as she researches her ancestor. Each chapter starts with a short biography about other Italian women poets who history has forgotten.
I mean, I’m always up for a book set in Italy. I only spent about eight hours in Venice, but I still got a little thrill at Charlotte experiencing and describing a place I had also experienced, and now I want to go back to Italy even more, to Venice itself, to the Biblioteca Marciana which I think we walked past but definitely didn’t enter.
But a book that explores the many ways that women are silenced by the book industry, hundreds of years ago and all the way up till yesterday? Always up for that too.
This is likely my favorite YA I read this year. Definitely so far (but I’m still waiting for Instructions for Dancing, which I think I will also enjoy quite a bit).
It made me think about that moment in front of the art at the library. It made me think about my own lack of confidence, where it originated (several painful memories with specific men come to mind) and how I might overcome it. It nudged me: do I want to die silent, with my book only in the ghost library? It reminded me: I don’t aspire to be someone like Luca Bruni, who uses his fame in self-serving ways. I just want to be successful in a way that feels true to myself; I want to not be ashamed of my silly writing aspirations but to feel sure in knowing it is my calling.
Charlotte, in entirely different circumstances, also wants to find the same strength within herself. And what I loved about the novel is that it doesn’t end with a “happy” ending, not if you are wanting vindication or a publishing deal for her. But it ends with her light growing, with her removing the doubt and fear that have kept her light dim, and that is a hopeful ending.