Books May 2001

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Big As Life

This collection of three novellas (April, May, and June) is the second volume in Maureen Howard's projected quartet of books arranged around the seasons. The first was a novel, A Lover's Almanac, whose heroes, Artie Freeman and Louise Moffett, make a small and moving appearance in one of the new tales. Otherwise the volumes are related only by themes—nature, art, seasonal return, generational legacies, the condition of women. And whereas A Lover's Almanac was described by some critics as postmodern in its stylistic choices, Big as Life is closer to a classic modernism, with Howard delivering a painterly prose that relies more on texture and sensation than on straight narrative.

The first tale is framed by the image of an ornamental pond of carp—"natural, by design so natural"—and the imperative to "imagine." It traces the attenuation of a dynasty from dying interwar patriarch to millennial female inheritor while describing the diverse and difficult lives of the women of the family throughout the century and also those of an eighteenth-century proto-feminist and her black female servant. The second tale balances innocence against violence, convention against faith, religious fervor against secular devotion, and is similarly focused on women's vulnerability and resourceful strength. The last tale looks at the life and work of the artist and naturalist John James Audubon, through the fading eyes of his long-suffering wife. This story forms a triptych with that of Artie (struggling mathematician) and Louise (struggling artist), and with an account of Howard's own (rather dull) experiences of flora and fauna during a predominantly urban upbringing.

Throughout, and especially in the last tale, the tensions between art and realism that engender the book's title are themselves artistically rendered. The academic sources from which historical figures are disinterred, and the imaginative process by which they are revivified in art, are offered concurrently. Although Howard's style can be too elliptical for its own good (a fault that sometimes extends to her dialogue and that produces the odd longueur), it just as often succeeds in gorgeously evoking the movement of lives and minds and emotions. Howard cites Thoreau during her own literary explorations of nature, and seems both to draw from him and to argue with him. This is a quiet and contemplative book of subtlety and grace, passion and commitment.

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