It is impossible to over-praise this gem of a first novel by Ann Wadsworth, and I profoundly lament the fact that in the nine years since its publication there has been no second.
One can always tell when a writer has fallen in love with her character because such characters become Muse-like objects of passion. Mercedes Medina (with whom we are never permitted to presume on first name familiarity) is a softly glowing pearl in the hands of this self-assured and brilliant writer, in command of such an elegant unencumbered style. Wadsworth’s book invites us to ask and answer questions about the nature and durability of different kinds of love: the intense loves of first awakenings, the un-recognised loves that prefigure them, the stable sustaining everyday loves which often have the propensity to stifle and make stagnant, and perhaps another kind of love – the love we sometimes choose in later life, which is not based on urgent need.
I can’t explain exactly why, but at times I felt that Wadsworth was channeling Virginia Woolf, and evoking Mrs. Dalloway. I felt that both characters shared the sense of weighted reticence that stood as an obstruction between themselves and their lives. Mrs. Medina cannot be blamed for being in no hurry to reveal herself to us, because all her life she has kept herself in the dark as well. The title of this book is clever – light returns as a reflection – and that is what this book truly is.
Mrs. Medina has been married for twenty five years to her eighty-five year old husband Patrick, an acclaimed cellist, whose health is in swift decline. She is approaching her sixtieth year, when she impulsively enters a flower shop and meets the young woman who works there. This meeting, and the scent of a gardenia, which is a potent olfactory jolt to the reclamation of a suppressed romantic memory, come together at this overdue climacteric of her life.
Mrs. Medina soon finds herself helplessly impelled by the insistent and irresistible clamour of a lifetime of repressed inclinations to seek a connection with Lennie, a woman in her thirties, who is the florist’s helper. At their first meeting Lennie is wearing the same muted colours (grey and white) worn by a woman Mrs. Medina first saw on her honeymoon, when they both took the same elevator. The woman, who wore a grey suit and white blouse, sparked in Mrs. Medina the first inchoate, brutally suppressed and repressed longings that resurfaced with Lennie.
Here is an amusing intertextual coincidence: In Patricia Highsmith’s book The Price of Salt, (written under the pseudonym Claire Morgan and said the first lesbian love story to have a happy ending) Therese, a young sales clerk at Woolworth’s, sees Carol, a beautiful sophisticated older woman, come in to make a purchase. This proves to be a coupe de foudre for Therese, who goes on to have a relationship with Carol. The incident was of course directly lifted from Highsmith’s own life, and soon after the brush with the real-life ‘Carol’ character, Kathleen Senn, Highsmith went home and fell violently ill with the chicken pox. Mrs. Medina too, after her first encounter with Lennie, comes down with a bad sore throat and accompanying cold.
I could push the coincidence to observe that ‘Claire Morgan’ could be translated as ‘clear morning’ or ‘clear tomorrow’ – so both novels appear to share the same suggestion of light returning…
But coming back to Mrs. Medina: Her meeting with Lennie precipitates a love affair that in real life would be quite improbable, but this romance, in the case of Mrs. Medina, seems almost foreordained.
Mrs. Medina is the May in the May/December marriage to her valetudinarian husband Patrick, but with Lennie she is if not quite December, then at least November. But, this November, far from being grey and dreary, is beautiful, cultured and cool as early morning rain in April. She teaches Italian literature at the University. However, she finds no satisfaction there, in casting before her swinish little pupils the anguished pearls of Elio Vittorini (a Sicilian writer whose book she is translating) and Italo Calvino. We may reasonably conclude that Vittorini’s post-war, anti-fascist writing has a strong resonance for Mrs. Medina, because, we suspect, herein resounds an echo of her long standing marriage to Patrick, who relentlessly exercises his own slightly whacky kind of fascism over her.
Mrs. Medina at first hesitantly, and then defiantly (if one could be so brash as to ascribe such a vehement quality as defiance to her) surrenders to her compulsion to love. There follows a very touching (though finally robust) account of her sexual and emotional awakening. Mrs. Medina’s stars must have been in a very propitious alignment, because she could not have wished for a more perfect lover than Lennie, who is undeterred by either Mrs. Medina’s age or her inexperience.
But things go wrong. Exeunt Lennie, and Patrick (the latter rather more permanently than the former) and in the middle of her life Mrs. Medina loses her way and begins her descent into hell. This is I think the most powerful and intense part of the book. Wadsworth spares us nothing in her brilliant exploration of the torment and anguish of lost love, when everything that has any meaning for one disappears. Like Dante’s Virgil, she guides us through the infernal pathways of Mrs. Medina’s grieving mind and delivers her into what we hope will be the light.
Of course the process is not that fast, and some relief is to be had when Mrs. Medina’s friend and colleague Tina arranges for her to have a Caribbean getaway. Blue ocean, languid tropical surroundings and warm friends help Mrs. Medina gently face her existential dilemma, and we begin to catch a glimpse of possible salvation.
I was fascinated by the slow accretion Wadsworth makes of Mrs. Medina’s traits and characteristics, which gradually place her before us as a completely convincing woman. When she falls in love, she begins to take determined steps away from her effete and inert role of wife, into the initiative required of her as a lover. She gradually loses her incorporeality and gains in substance as she bends the light so that we watch her unfolding, and revealing the artifacts hidden behind in her past. I think there may be a significant connection I am missing here that has to do with the flowers – maybe a tip of the hat to Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and maybe something secret about the flowers themselves – Lisianthus, Gardenia etc…
I felt I was being transported into something resembling an altered state by the intense interiority of Mrs. Medina’s ‘voice’: a voice which soundlessly implanted itself in me. I was completely captured and swept into her world by Wadsworth’s preternaturally precise observations of place and time that made the ordinary minutiæ of Mrs. Medina’s life loom like the monuments to memory that little things sometimes become. I am referring now to the woman in the grey suit. Wadsworth introduced that scene like a gentle touch, when it was in fact for Mrs. Medina a high velocity hollow point projectile which had an entry but not an exit wound.
I like to think of Mrs. Medina as a vindicating reprise of Mrs. Dalloway. Mrs. Dalloway never managed to remove her mask – perhaps she didn’t know she was wearing one, but though Mrs. Medina sowed the wind, she somehow managed to hang on to the whirlwind. Behind her reserve, her diffidence and her timidity, she hid an implacable impulse towards emotional and erotic fulfillment.
If there was a discordant note in this novel, it was somehow the character of Patrick, whose unfortunate episodes of childish petulance, together with his obduracy and zaniness, were never deplored and shown in what I thought should have been an honest light. His outbursts were I think, too charitably responded to, and somehow even made to seem oracular. I thought the extreme solidity of the love between Mrs. Medina and Patrick was implausible, in light of the fact that he acted as if she was a meal he was fully justified in devouring because it was his last supper. And now, as I seemed to have succumbed to indulging my criticality, I might mention that I also found Wadsworth’s mannerism of always referring to Mrs. Medina as ‘Mrs. Medina’ (though I did see the reason for it) a little wearying.
I think Wadsworth contrived Patrick’s relentless red-blooded self-assertion and his sheer exuberance as a foil to Mrs. Medina’s somewhat anemic paleness of character and her hidden sense of self, and his flourishing exit from mortal life was meant to contrast with Mrs. Medina’s diffident (though tenacious) entry into her lesbian existence. Another symmetry of course was the reversal in her affair with Lennie of the age difference in her marriage with Patrick.
In many ways I thought Lennie was more appealing than Mrs. Medina. Lennie lacked the insulation of affluence and untroubled conventional life Mrs. Medina took for granted. Her willingness to adapt to a much older (albeit elegant) woman’s awkward and inexpert amatory choreography with infinite patience and finesse, was I thought quite exemplary. I cared about Mrs. Medina’s happiness, but I think I cared cared as much, if not more, for Lennie’s.
Based on my limited experience, I felt a certain empathy with Wadsworth because of her obvious love and intimate knowledge of Italy, and her respect for Italian literary worthies such as Elio Vittorini, Italo Calvino and Natalia Ginsberg, whom (as if she expects us to already know them) she refers to only by their last names. Last summer I translated one of Ginsberg’s short stories myself, and experienced first hand the despair and delight of trying to transform the Italian voice to English.
The sheer beauty of Wadsworth’s spare and elegant placement of words, and their telling impact, is striking and awe inspiring. I find that to read such good writing is inevitably to crave more. This book is a deeply honest and illumined exploration of many interwoven themes – love, loss, mortality, the encroachments of age, and the journey of awakening to one’s own authentic nature. It is a firm reminder that at some point in our lives, if we are lucky, love will compel us to face the difficult challenge of finding, confronting and embracing our own true selves. This was an uplifting and substantially satisfying read, and I await a second novel with eager expectation.