The more or less constant delights of Jane Alison’s latest novel bubble up out of a story that is, incongruously, bleak. It is quite an achievement, a comic novel about a woman of a certain age as she contemplates embracing a not-altogether-unwelcome spinsterhood. Thirty years of male duplicity and romantic disappointment can do that to a person. While these are not the circumstances that ordinarily beckon modern readers, even sophisticated ones, let me assure you that the pages of this marvel flow like water.
Alison’s protagonist, identified only by the initial “J,” is an aging intellectual (I guess her to be about 50), currently engaged in a creative translation of stories from Ovid’s “Metamorphosis.” Not exactly the average middle-aged woman, but her psychic bruising at the hands of men, the permanent marks on her heart and brain, will ring true with most, I imagine.
Although she’s attractive to the opposite sex, J lives in near seclusion on the 21st floor of an aging condominium building along the Venetian Causeway.
Only two years have passed since her return from Germany, where a decade-long marriage to an ex-pat American sputtered to a tragically amicable conclusion.
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J has spent much of the intervening time on a “heat-seeking tour of old boyfriends,” driving her Mini up and down I-95, visiting former loves from as far back as fifth grade. “Who knew?” she wonders. “Might be something I missed.” There was not. The series of amorous excursions amounts to little more than “lots of nervous drinking and ruinous sex.” The men turn out to be worse than their younger versions: “[G]irlfriends or wives kept secret in pockets, vessels broken on once-noble noses, gazing into glasses of gin.”
If J were a man, “Nine Island” would be termed a mid-life crisis novel, but the panic brought on by aging and disillusionment feels different as a woman’s story. For one thing, J indulges in little self-pity, unlike men in similar straits. She’s far too aware of her ticks and eccentricities for that. In fact, she is the ultimate reliable narrator, seeing clearly each of her bad choices, the things she does to ward off despair. “I walked fast toward the sunset, counting steps. I understand counting’s a symptom, but knowing this won’t stop me. The number of steps, boats, balconies, strokes, lines of Latin, pages.”
And if this were a pop novel, or a romantic movie, there would be a gallant older gentleman about to come into view (if not to the rescue), a cowboy like Sam Elliott in “I’ll See You in My Dreams” or Ed Harris as an artist in “The Face of Love.” Alison is too honest as a literary artist to resort to such expediencies. The most trivial aspects of her day-to-day life — swimming laps in the pool, walking the causeway to a Publix on Miami Beach, caring for her blind, incontinent, geriatric cat — are made interesting merely by the way J sees them.
Even as J grapples with the idea of giving up on men, physical desire grows more ferocious. She revels in ridiculous fantasies about the younger men she sees during the day. She stresses over the possibility she is losing her own desirability. When J notes that 32 days have past since she has last had sex, she begins to worry about “vaginal atrophy,” a fate that befell her frail old mother. J wonders if “solitary pleasuring” is proof against the withering of her lady parts. Unsure, she performs kegels as she walks. “Something new to count. Now this would be a full-body workout … I found it easiest to time the squeezes with cracks in the pink sidewalk. Hold tight for ten cracks, release for four, tight for ten, and take it to the bridge.”
There is a wonderful observation like this on every page. The temptation to finish this review with quotes and quips must be resisted. Woven within, under, and above the crisp, witty narrative are the most serious of themes: decay, loss, mortality. As the narrative moves forward, all around her things animate and otherwise crumble. Her building, her cat, a wounded duck she attempts to rescue, her elderly mother, “N,” the fit-looking woman she befriends at the pool, who is, in fact, tormented by chronic pain.
At least one thing does survive, and with an unexpected flourish of vitality that provides J, bookish as she is, with a powerful metaphor for the persistence of the life force. “If you retire from love, N once told me, you retire from life.” Whether J accepts her friend’s wisdom, I’ll leave you to discover. Doing otherwise would be a disservice to author, reader and book.
Chauncey Mabe is a writer in Miami.
Meet the author
Who: Jane Alison
When: 4 p.m. Sept. 25
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
Info: www.booksandbooks.com or 305-442-4408