2022 Reading Goals

In 2021, I created two different reading challenges for myself, one for the summer and one for the fall. I think that doing them quarterly instead of yearly helped me to stay more focused because I knew I had three months to meet some of my goals. (I made the goals larger than I would complete on purpose, giving myself some necessary wiggle room.) Even though no one else really paid attention to my little challenges, posting them online (both here and on my Instagram)

I didn’t ever write down my progress on my autumn reading challenge—I probably still will, though it will be out of order chronologically.

And December was just not a good month for me, emotionally, so I didn’t create a winter reading challenge.

But! Since the quarterly challenges did help me to read more, I will pick it back up in March by creating a spring reading challenge.

And until then, here is my list of year-long reading goals for 2022.

  • Read one poetry book every month. I didn’t finish any entire poetry books in 2021, although I read several halfway through.
  • Read one book of essays in each even month (like February, April, June…). Poetry and essays are something I love but have turned away from for reasons I only partly understand. It’s time to change that!
  • Write a blog post about every book I read. (I did pretty well with this last year.)
  • Heroine with 1001 Faces. Greek Myths: New Retellings. And the chapter in The Understory about Scandinavian burials. Read these three as I work on my story. (Keeping this nebulous because it is far too tiny of an idea to share yet.)
  • Advocate for books more vocally. I’m not sure what this will look like, other than posting more on Facebook about controversial books, book banning, and reading in general. I would like to find a political group to become a part of that helps to advocate for freedom of thought, libraries, and reading but not sure if that even exists in Utah. More research required!
  • Reread Beloved and Never Let Me Go.
  • Keep a list of books I get at least one-quarter the way through but don’t finish.

Here’s to a 2022 filled with amazing, gorgeous books and lots of peaceful reading time!


Book Review: Of Salt and Shore

The girl knows, though, that remembering can be difficult. She always has so much inside her head: songs, stories, things she has to learn, things she wants to forget but that keep coming back. When she needs to remember something, she often forgets it, but she always remembers whatever she wants to forget.

Of salt and shoreI picked up Of Salt and Shore by Annet Schaap on the recommendation of my friend Holly. I hadn’t heard of it before she posted about it on her year-in-review Facebook post in late December, and although I had 18 or 19 other books checked out, I decided I needed to read it in the few days before 2021 ended.

It tells the story of Lampie (whose real name is Emelia), who lives on a little island in a bay, taking care of a lighthouse with her father. “With” in a lose sense; basically he drinks and mourns for his wife while she keeps things going. When she runs out of matches on the night of a storm and can’t light the lamp, disaster ensues. She and her father are blamed for it, and her punishment is to be sent to work at the Black House, the estate of the Admiral, which is dank and dirty and dark—and also rumored to hold a monster.

I loved many things about this book. It blends several familiar stories to make a different whole: Beauty and the Beast, The Secret Garden, The Little Mermaid. Lampie is imaginative and smart but not very confident, and her interactions with Fish, the rumored monster, help her find her voice. He teaches her to read and write, which is a great gift for her, but it is when she stands up to him—in a very Mary Lennox-ish way) that she comes into herself. One of my favorite parts of the story is when she goes to the fair and meets the Freaks from the circus tent; especially since this is a book for younger readers (9-12ish), I loved the message of accepting people for who they are, even if it’s a bit startling. I loved the way most of the stories get tied up in the end.

Plus it has some beautiful illustrations at the start of each chapter.

But, one thing bothered me enough that it took away from my enjoyment of the book. One of the reasons that Lampie is taken away from her father is that he hits her with a stick in front of a teacher. We do see his remorse after this happens, but that isn’t the only way he abused her. Putting the responsibility of the lighthouse onto her little shoulders, neglecting her, taking her out of school so she could take care of him: these are also forms of abuse. In the end, Lampie goes back to her father. He gives her a half-assed apology and she—she just says “It’s OK, Daddy.”

No.

Again, thinking about the audience for this book, I think this interaction needed to be much more detailed. Many of the threads in the book work towards forgiveness, but it is the parents and adults who need it, and none of them really work for it. Fish’s father doesn’t. The citizens of the town don’t. And Lampie’s father definitely doesn’t. I think that a book written for younger readers should highlight an adult taking responsibility for their actions rather than the child having to just get over the impact of those actions.

That said, I did really love this book. It was a good way to end my 2021 reading year. (Although I'm posting it in 2022, I finished it in 2021.)


Book Review: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Looking back, it seemed to me I’d been trying to escape not just from the camp, but from Achilles’s story; and I’d failed. Because, make no mistake, this was his story—his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter. Here I was, again, waiting for Achilles to decide when it was time for bed, still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no real part to play in it.

Silence of the girlsIt is a long-established fact that I am a fan of retellings of the stories of Homer and Virgil. I actually read a retelling—Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley—years before the originals. I didn’t read The Iliad, the Odyssey, or The Aeneid until my twenties, when I took one of several mythology courses while working on my English degree. (It is one of my greatest regrets that I cannot find the translations we read in that class—meaning, I don’t know who wrote the translations and I either lost or sold the actual book I read—because they were excellent.) I picked up this one, The Silence of the Girls, one day at work when I spotted it on a discard cart; I’ve been meaning to read it but somehow hadn’t yet. I read a bit of it at the desk and it immediately grabbed me, so I took it home and it was a great companion for the last days of 2021.

This retelling of The Iliad is told mostly through the perspective of Briseis, a princess in a kingdom near Troy who was captured when the Greeks sacked her city. She is given to Achilles as a war prize, and then taken back by Agamemnon when he quarrels with Achilles, leading him to stop fighting until the Trojans have almost beaten back the Greeks. When he kills Hector in a rage after his life-long friend, Patroclus, is killed fighting in his armor, Achilles receives Briseis back as a gift (again).

As I read this book, I found myself questioning myself. Why DO I want to revisit this story? It is a horrible one. An entire community destroyed, a decade of war; betrayal and deceit by the Gods they all believed in. Illness and death and, running through it all, the way that the lives of women are without meaning or value except in relation to men. “Men carve meaning into women’s faces,” Briseis comes to understand, “messages addressed to other men.” Ostensibly they go to war to bring back Helen, but it isn’t about Helen herself. Helen is just an excuse for men to kill each other, to plunder, to rape and murder and enslave women, and Helen is just the beginning. Iphigenia, Chryseis, Cassandra, Clytemnestra, Andromache, Hecuba, Penelope, Penthesilea, Lavinia, Circe, Calypso, Dido. Female characters are vastly outnumbered by male ones but their stories are consistent throughout, even when they are not murdered: objects to men.

Why do I come back to these stories?

“But it’s the girls I remember the most,” Breseis muses near the end of the story.

Me too. I’m not sure I’ve read any retellings that aren’t focused on the women’s stories. Even though their stories break my heart. Or maybe especially because they do. My reading changes nothing except it means they (and by “they” I mean the multitude of faceless, nameless women not in epic stories whose lives were used in the same or similar ways) are still at least thought of in contemporary times.

There is a section in this book where Briseis makes a list of the men and boys that Achilles kills in his furor over Patroclus’s death. I read this section with tears streaming down my face, because those boys also died for the same reason the women suffered: because men in power decided it was necessary. 

And none of that has changed, really. Yes, the details look different. But even now, millennia since whatever real-life war that these writings are based on actually happened (if it even did), men in power continue making decisions that illustrate they value only themselves. 

When I compare the person I was all those decades ago reading Cassandra’s story to who I am now, reading Briseis’s, I am certain the story is the same. What has changed is me, my outrage, my frustration, my continuing-to-develop sense that until women have actual, true equality, none of this will ever change. Which is maybe a bleak realization and perhaps not a hearty recommendation for Pat Barker’s novel, but in reality—no. It means she gets to the root of what these stories mean and why they continue to impact readers.

(Although I'm posting this in 2022, I read this in 2021.)


Book Review: The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton

Although some things exist in places out of reach, that doesn’t mean they cannot be.

Restless girlsThe Restless Girls by Jessie Burton is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale, with gorgeous illustrations by Angela Barrett. In my library it is shelved with the other junior novels, for readers about 9-12, but I think it is an ageless story that anyone could love. And certainly if you pay attention at all to women’s rights, this will resonate.

As I read the story about Frida and her eleven sisters, who are locked in a single room by their father, the king, in order to keep them safe, I thought about all the ways that society continues to damage girls, and the ways that damage influences the women we become. The concept of “protect women because they are precious and easily hurt” is a different form of damage than outright violence, but still damaging. Putting women on a pedestal like that damages them because it limits (severely, in many cases) the choices they can make. For me, the pedestal my religion puts women on has impacted my entire adult life, as even as I recognized the fancy cage they put me in (for my safety, of course) and made my little efforts to knock it down, I still also embraced it. I still made choices that then allowed them to limit my other choices. The sisters in the story do their very best to not uphold the cage, and the end is satisfying, but still. Still.

I am so tired of stories about women being damaged by men.

Not tired of reading them, but tired of the fact that they continue to be told because they continue to happen. In one sense, the twelve princesses’ story is a story of brave women overthrowing their captors. But in another sense it is the continued story of what it means to be a woman in a society controlled by men. And yes, I hear that choir of voices starting up, the one that says things have changed, women have rights, feminism’s work is done here. But the truth is—and you only need to look at Texas for confirmation—that it is not and it never will be, because even if we do ever manage to gain actual equality, we will always continue to need to fight for it. Men will always want to hold all the power.

And thus we need these stories of brave women who overcome.

(Although I'm posting this in 2022, I read it in 2021.)


Book Review: The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina

I shouldn't have left, but I did. It's my own fault. We don't talk. None of us. Why don't we ever talk? Silence is a language of its own in this family. A curse of our own making.
 
Inheritance of orquideaA novel about a family influenced by its powerful grandmother, who clearly possesses some sort of supernatural power (is she a bruja maybe?), familial inheritance of not just possessions but traits and strengths, and the way one decision can influence many generations. A novel compared to Alice Hoffman's and Isabel Allende's work. A novel with a traveling circus, a river monster, a mysterious sapphire ring, magic to cause the dead to speak with their bones, flowers growing out of human bodies. A novel with such a beautiful cover!
 
It seems like a novel I would absolutely love.
 
And I did love several things about this book. The concept of the story itself, which is that Marimar and Rey Montoya, cousins living in Manhattan, one day receive an invitation to come home to Four Rivers, where their grandmother Oquidea is dying. They and the rest of their aunts, uncles, and cousins have stayed away from Orquidea's home for many years, even though they all grew up there, and when they arrive they try to figure out what is happening, as Orquidea appears to be turning into a tree. From here were learn about Orquidea's history and more of Marimar's and Rey's stories. I always appreciate a book that moves skillfully between different time periods, and this one does that. I love that Orquidea's inheritance to her family members is potential. I loved the exploration of family stories, South American myth, and individual persistence.
 
It had so much potential, this one.
 
But I struggled with it. The story was intriguing but the writing style knocked me out of the story, over and over. Some of it was editorial, such as when Marimar plants a garden of seeds and daffodils are included in the list (daffodils grow from bulbs, not seeds), or the two times the text said "signing" when it meant "singing." But more, it was...slippery. I could imagine the places—Guayaquil, Ecuador; New York City; the home in Four Rivers—but the conflict and impetus seemed so vague. I couldn't understand why the cousins held such resentment of Orquidea and the process of her dying, the family members' outrage, was something I couldn't picture because of that lack of understanding. The small shifts in perspective into different cousin's point-of-view also threw me out of the story. Some of it was what happened in the story, such as Marimar's long solo stay at Four Rivers, which felt cloudy and vague in its purpose, and the mystery of who her father is (he "briefly escaped for a time" but that is a HUGE detail that is just not ever explained). It is hard for me to explain why I couldn't stay inside the book, and the reasons feel the same as why I didn't actually love it.
 
I can't say for sure if I am glad I read this book, even though I think some of the images will stay with me. I am glad I finished it, though, because I felt like it taught me something about writing.
 
(Although I am posting this in 2022, I finished it in 2021.)
 

Book Review: The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

After Goodnight Moon I never thought I’d care about anyone’s hair again. But you can’t ever imagine what you’re going to care about when you turn into the version of you that’s waiting on the other side of five years from now. That’s a stranger waiting to ambush you, and all you can do is plant your feet and try not to get thrown.

I worry a lot about the environment and the damage we are doing to it. I know not everyone understands that, and many of my friends and family think I’m ridiculous, swept up in some media-induced fearmongering, but really it goes far into my past. In 1991 I took an ecology class for one of my science credits and that is when I first learned about things like global warming, the J-shaped curve of the population explosion, water and air pollution, greenhouse gasses, endangered species, sea birds strangled by soda-pop plastic. Since then I have worried about it. I do what I can (recycle, try to reduce my carbon input, support companies trying to innovate in environmental ways); when I build or buy a different house I will install solar panels. But I have carried that anxious worry ever since, my whole adult life in fact.

(If you want a fun story ask me about the time I exploded at one of my sisters for her faux-news-inspired take on the Green New Deal and how betrayed I felt by another sister who told me she didn’t know I was a conspiracy theorist.)

So why add to the anxiety by reading post-climate-apocalypse novels?

The devil you know, I suppose.

Practicing to live in a ruined world.

Searching for some clue to what I might do to change it.

Past is redThe Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente is unabashedly post-apocalyptic. It’s set perhaps two hundred years in the future, where the polar ice caps are gone and all ice is gone and snow is gone, and all that’s left is blue earth. No land, but some things still float, enough to support some human life. Tetly Abednego lives on Garbage Town, an enormous floating garbage island. When the flooding happened, all of the garbage was sorted, and she was born in the spot where all the candles went. She has a twin brother, who might love her, and parents who decidedly don’t, and when she heads out into the wasteland of Garbage Town, things happen. She makes choices that change society, loses people who love her, gains others. (You have to read it to experience her adventures.)

But what doesn’t change is her hopefulness.

She doesn’t love this world she’s been born into, but she doesn’t hate it like others do; she is able to find happiness in the heaps and piles, in houses constructed out of refuse. And the place this story takes you to—I did not expect to go there. In the face of Tetley’s hope, where the story ends up is absolutely devastating, except Tetley still keeps on hoping. I can’t explain it as well as the author does in the afterword:

Tetley is beyond all the fear and uncertainty of the present. She lives in her world, the only world she has ever known, and it shines for her, as the ‘50s shine for one generation and the ‘80s for another, despite the dystopia of both periods. She is, in some sense, my best hope for us, for our future, that we will live, and remember a little, and some of us will even bey happy, after everything goes to hell. She is the part of humanity that will love anything, find meaning in anything, build a new civilization out of anything, because it’s a compulsion with us. I don’t have a lot of hope for the powers that be pulling us out of the tailspin they put us into. But I have hope for Tetley. For the other worlds to come, which will not be this one, which may never have the ease of this one again, but which will be, one way or another. And be loved by someone.

In a sense, I am in the midst of my own little apocalypse right now. “My own” but also others. I don’t know what the world to come will look like or how I will find joy in all of that damage. But reading this novel made me just a little bit hopeful. That somehow there will be joy, goodness, connection, the opposite of loneliness (what is that?), happiness. That I will be able to love that world too.

I hope I never forget this book and how it made me feel.


Book Review: One Great Lie by Deb Caletti

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.

One great lieI 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.


Book Review: The Quarry by Damon Galgut

When the policeman climbed back out of the dam he got up again and went on. He was no longer sure that there was a difference between them or that they were separate from each other and they moved on together across the surface of the world and the sun went down and it got dark and still they continued in duet. They moved through the night in faintest silhouette like dreams that the soil was having.

QuarryI'm one of those pretentious people who pays attention to literary awards. Or maybe I'm not pretentious, maybe I just am a librarian who likes to know what books people are talking about. Or maybe both.

At any rate, when I watched the video of Damon Galgut winning the Booker award a couple of weeks ago, I decided immediately I wanted to read something by him. The Booker introduced me to him—I hadn't ever heard of him before this year's nominations and I didn't pay much attention to his book The Promise, which won the award. But I read about him and then I decided I needed to read something he had written, and since my library had his novel The Quarry I decided to read that.
 
His work is described as "spare"—consider, for example, this description of sky: "clear smoke zigged across it like a thin fatal flaw in something otherwise perfect"—and that was what I kept coming back to as I read this story of an unnamed man who has committed some sort of crime and is fleeing across South Africa. He is picked up by a minister who is driving to his new congregation, a smarmy sort of man with questionable motives. The criminal kills him, disposes of his body, and drives to the small village, assuming the minister's life. Nothing is described in an effluvious way in this story; there are simply boulders and sunsets and a decrepit church. But the landscape still comes to vivid life: spare, but also precise.
 
This is a short novel, one you can read in a single afternoon if you want. It is violent and gritty, but it says something about human nature, how we are all fumbling along and sometimes that fumbling includes connection but often it leads to misunderstanding and violence.
 
I believe I will seek out more from this author

Book Review: In the Quick by Kate Hope Day

In the quickI finished a book yesterday on my lunch break that I am struggling to write about, In the Quick by Kate Hope Day. It is billed as a mashup of The Martian, Station Eleven, and Jane Eyre and I've wanted to read it since it first came out, so when I was scrolling for another audiobook to listen to while I was quilting this week, and it was available on Libby, I snagged it.

It tells the story of June, who lives with her aunt and uncle (we never find out what happened to her parents, which was a question that ate at me for the entire story), a wealthy family living in what I imagined as an enormous old manor house in England, updated with modern conveniences but with plenty of relics in the basement. Her uncle is an astrophysicist who has designed a fuel cell capable of taking astronauts on years-long space trips, but he dies before he sees the first ship launch. June has his same mechanical-mind way of thinking about things and is fascinated with how things fit together.

When she nearly burns her aunt's house down, she is sent to Peter Reed, a boarding school her uncle founded to teach students to become astronauts, and eventually she gets to go to space, to the very pink planet her uncle always told her about.

This is hard for me to write about because I had a huge variety of responses. I was absolutely pulled into the story and couldn't wait to know what happens to June and to the space ship, which has stopped responding. I loved her precocity and her connection to her uncle, and her quirkiness—which maybe is even on the autism spectrum. I loved the adventures I went on with her, and besides, I always love a good bildungsroman, a boarding-school setting, a plot that infuses a genre with feminism. Plus the writing is amazing, and I would like to visit the pink planet too.

I love that this reads as a literary sci-fi. Considering how lines between genres can be blurred is always interesting to me.

But.

I wanted it to be more. The ending was deeply unsatisfying to me, even as I understand why it ended as it did, and I had so many unanswered questions. Not just about June's parents. But: where did the pink planet come from? How did we not know it existed after all this time? What was in the atmosphere that helped with pain? What was wrong with James? Why were the government restrictions so lax and lazy that they just let all of the technology and inventions get neglected?

I ended up reading a bunch of reviews after I finished it. (I tend to avoid other readers' reviews of books until I have finished them for myself.) The responses to this one are all over the place, from extreme loathing to "it was OK" to adoration. The general consensus though?

That cover is amazing.

Even with those unanswered questions, though, I am glad I read this one and imagine that I will continue thinking about it for a long time.

 


Book Review: Matrix by Lauren Groff

               It strikes her now that god must be most like the sun in the sky, which rises for the day and sleeps at night, endlessly renewing itself; and it is warm for it pours out its warmth and light, and yet at the same time it is coldly remote, for it continues on even as humans who equally fill the earth with life live and die, and it does not care either way, it does not alter its path, it does not listen to the noises on the earth beneath, it cannot stop to notice human life at all, it shakes off what absurd stories we try to pin to it and exists in calm as only itself, radiant and distant and meaningless.
               It is up to saints and angels to intercede for those humans embroiled in the dirt of the earth beneath, filthy small creatures that must seem to them in their grandeur as little writhing insects crying out in words too muted to hear.

MatrixYesterday on my lunch break I drove down to Provo to get some apples from a fruit stand. On my way back I passed an apartment complex near the university with a huge pink banner draped across several balconies that read “women for trump.” I had finished the novel Matrix by Lauren Groff just the day before, and I was still in a haze of idealized imaginings of what women might do if we bound together, but that pink sign drained it all away. Women, I know and believe and utterly am sure of, have every capacity to save the world, to change the world, to make it better in ways that men, simply by being men in a society that for millennia has favored their perspective, cannot imagine.

But it also seems that possibility is far from coming to fruition.

The novel tells the story of Marie de France, a woman who lived during the reign of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a bastard of royalty. Educated, opinionated, tall and strong, Marie comes to court after it is discovered that her mother had died and she (Marie) had been running the estate on her own, secretly. She doesn’t fit in at court, so Eleanor (influenced by another half-sister of Marie’s) sends her to an abbey, where she is to be the prioress. Eleanor resists and is unhappy and longs to return to the presence of Eleanor, but slowly accepts her new role—and then makes the choice to live. She turns the abbey, which held a few starving, ill nuns when she arrived, into a thriving place of worship, work, and innovation.

The “matrix” of the title refers to the connection between Eve and Mary, in that Eve’s choices made it possible for Mary to conceive Christ. As Marie explains it, “without the flaw of Eve there could be no purity of Mary. And without the womb of Eve, which is the House of death, there could be no womb of Mary, which is the House of Life.” This is the first matrix.

But it is also about the connection between women. Marie glimpses it over and over, in the women who become nuns and how they care for each other (even a bit of lesbian sex, which I’d never really thought about in terms of a nunnery but which does, really, make sense), how what they each bring to the community, their personalities, foibles, past experiences, families and learning and desires, influences everyone. She is able to see strengths and to alter paths to accommodate them. Near the end of her life, after the death of an old nun, she realizes that “this community is precious, there is a place here even for the maddest, for the discarded, for the difficult, in this enclosure there is love enough even for the most unlovable of women.”

Or, more precisely, it is about the potential for women to be connected. The concepts in Marie’s visions are revolutionary, and they are still, a thousand years later, mostly a concept. Maybe I only feel that because even with my own extended family, we women are not united and it is a knife I continue to grapple with. But it’s also that pink sign, and Kristen Sinema, and pro-fetus women’s groups.

I loved this novel. It is one that I know not everyone will love, because the writing style is so beautiful it makes the plot slow down. But it really isn’t about plot anyway, or at least it is only about the plot of an entire life. At first I thought of it as an “espresso novel,” which are the kind of books you can only read in small amounts of time, little but complex and intense gulps. But I read the last quarter of it straight through, with tears. The complicated mesh of love, frustration, annoyance, affection, care, and suffering the women in the abbey create both gave me hope and filled me with despair because I know there is potential for such communities to exist—but yet, here we are, no more united than any other time in history.