Pictures of You/Caroline Leavitt: Reflections

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Lisa Zeidner is not just a beloved writer and essential, smart critic; she's a teacher who has created, at Rutgers-Camden, a place for aspiring writers to burrow in and learn.  I had the pleasure of spending this past Friday with her and among the students of her summer writers' festival; we dug in deep.  Among the many questions that surfaced over our time together was:  How is writerly intimacy achieved by way of the third-person voice?

Saturday evening, alone at DC neighborhood bar where popcorn was a bonafide (and much-ordered) menu item and my salad was wholesome and good, I began to read a book that I've been thoroughly anticipating—Caroline Leavitt's ninth novel, Pictures of YouPictures won't be released from Algonquin until January 25, 2011, but that doesn't matter; it's been buzz material for several months now, deservedly so.  It's a story of collisions—a story about an accident on a fog-bound road.  One woman survives.  One woman—a wife and mother—does not.  Accidents are eruptions.  They splinter and derail.  They split the flesh, they burst the heart, they leave lives and strangers raw and entangled.  Leavitt brilliantly captures all of this, placing an asthmatic, camera-toting child at the center of it all, and twisting our readerly expectations.

Many have written about the head-on, page-turning quality of Pictures, and I stand with the chorus; those driving by the Washington Plaza Hotel and looking up to the ninth floor last evening would have noted a light burning bright in an insomniac's room.  That would have been me, barreling through—marveling at the story but also (and here we return to our beginning; I have not forgotten) wishing that I'd had Leavitt's book by my side when the Rutgers-Camden workshop question arose:  Intimacy?  Third person?  How?

Caroline Leavitt, I'd have said.  Exhibit A.  For in Pictures, Leavitt, writing close-over-the-shoulder third-person, gains readers access to the inner-most thoughts and histories of some truly interesting characters.  It's never done for show, never done just because Leavitt can.  It is done to advance the story, to entangle the protagonists, to make plausible and absolute the seismic earth upon which the whole is grounded. Look, for example, at this:

In all the years they've been together, he's never hurt her, never raised a hand or even his voice, but he's smashed five sets of dishes, broken several glasses and a figurine he had bought her as a joke, a Scottish terrier with a tiny gold chain.

Leavitt understands the telling power of the artfully chosen detail—the Scottish terrier with a tiny gold chain, in this instance.  She avoids vapid generalizations, takes no short-cuts, enables us to see not just the things themselves but the ways in which these things are mulled and reconstituted by those who must remember so that they can live forward.  She lets us know what her characters yearn for ("she yearns for cities where people don't make you feel there is something wrong with you because you live there year 'round.") and how those yearnings have been seeded.  Character is story, Leavitt proves again and again.  Suspending our disbelief.  Putting us (right) there.


Wendy said...

Thanks for this, Beth...I have this book waiting patiently for me to read (I had thought it was coming out in 2010...did they change the release date!??!?). I am really looking forward to it :)

Beth F said...

Algonquin has a such a great track record and Leavitt's Pictures sounds like my kind of book. Thanks for sharing your reflections.

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