The Hole We're In/Gabrielle Zevin: Reflections

Saturday, December 25, 2010

I've been wanting to read a Gabrielle Zevin novel for quite some time, and after all the festivities of Christmas were bowed out and complete, I slipped away to the brand-new couch with Zevin's newest novel for adults in hand.  "Meet the Pomeroys:  a church-going family of five living in a too-red house in a Texas college town," the flap copy reads.  "Roger, the patriarch, has impulsively decided to go back to school, only to find his future ambitions at odds with the temptations of the present.  His wife, Georgia, is trying to keep things afloat on the home front, though she's been feeding the bill drawer with unopened envelopes for months, and can never find the right moment to confront its scary, swelling contents...." 

Too-red house, I thought.  Feeding the bill drawer with unopened envelopes.  I was already keen on the sound of this book, the implied possibilities, when I opened it to its first page and read:
Midway through his son's graduation from college, somewhere between the Ns and the Os, Roger Pomeroy decided that he owed it to himself to go back to school.  He was forty-two years old, though people told him at least once a week that he looked younger.  Last Christmas, a salesgirl had mistaken his then nineteen-year-old daughter for his wife.  Last week, a different salesgirl had mistaken his forty-one year old wife for his mother.  He knew it wasn't flattery, because in both instances the salesgirls had already made their sales:  respectively, a flannel nightgown (wife's Christmas) and a leather fanny pack (son's graduation).
In five seemingly effortless (though of course they are hardly effortless) sentences, Zevin has set a rather immaculate stage—framed a Mr. Pretty (if he does say so himself) who daydreams through his son's college graduation, declares himself worthy of just a little self-satisfying something, and dresses his wife, at night, in flannel. We're in for a ride, we eavesdroppers on the Pomeroys.  We're in for debt and guilt and shame and disaster; we're in for a portrait of our times and for killer characterizations achieved with economic zing.

Consider the way Zevin pulls back the curtain on a woman who is not the saintly Roger's wife:
Her lone suitcase was a creamy brown leather, a bit battered by glamorously so, the sort of thing a reporter carried to cover a war or a fashion show. She had a tiny spray bottle that she used to hydrate her face.  "Would you like a spritz?" she asked Roger just before they were told to put away their electronic devices.  He accepted and felt instantly transported to a tropical rainforest.  Why didn't George have tricks like that?"
All we need is the spritzer to conjure this woman.  All we need is the word "transported" to anticipate her oily impact on our anti-hero.  And of course Roger, so pretty, so self-indulgent, so righteous, so right, so self-forgiving, manages to riddle his entire family with pain, because when you're only paying attention to yourself, you are plain not paying attention.

There's parody here, and skewering.  There are scenes that made me cringe (Zevin wanted me to cringe) and scenes that made me cry (she's good at that, too), and all the while there are reminders that Zevin is up to far more than mere entertaining here, as when she writes, knowingly, "people did what they could live with; all sin was relative."

I received The Hole We're In as a gift from Black Cat—a surprise package brought on by a tired UPS mailman in the dark of Tuesday night.  I'm about ready to settle in with Patricia Engel's Vida now.  Let the snow fall where it will; I'm reading.  


Julia said...

Beth-- I picked up this one too, a month ago. As the cover suggests, it is a recessionary version of Corrections, and while I found the book to be nice, I had the same problems with it that I did with Corrections. Both books put their characters almost entirely in terms of the subject they are trying to address, skipping forth in time to highlight the periods in the character's life that best pertain to the hole analogy. At parts, I felt as if I was reading an all too organized term paper.

The book did have a good third dimension though-- I enjoyed Patsy's journey throughout the course of the novel, though I found it a little unbelievable that she (and almost only she) took the full brunt of her parents' mistakes.

Glad you're enjoying it, though. :)

Anonymous said...

I loved your writing about it, Beth.

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