While perusing the book aisles at Target, one back-cover blurb in particular caught my attention. In case it’s hard to read below: “Mackenzie Cooper took her eyes off the road for just a moment, but the resulting collision changed her life forever. Now she lives in Vermont under the name Maggie Reid, in a small house with her cats and dog, working as a makeup artist at the luxurious local spa.” Let’s forget the first sentence (without forgetting that texting and driving is a BIG NO NO); doesn’t the rest sound kind of…charming? Cozy? Maybe it sounds a little boring and/or slow, but I think we all have days where “real life” seems chaotic and stressful – and maybe enjoying a cup of piping hot tea while curled up in a blanket after returning from our probably-the-same-everyday job seems downright appealing. As I noted on Instagram, this blurb sounds tragic…but also like something out of a J. Crew catalog circa 1995.
We all know this is not real life, but a little nudge toward a comfy and snug life is the same reason some people, in theory, want to be painters or writers or perhaps potters like Demi Moore in Ghost. (Talk about a weird interplay between cozy and tragic.) So I’ve discovered and trademarked a new genre: Tragic Yet Cozy. And by the way, I did a proof read of a manuscript by this same author about 10 years ago, and the plot involved a group of middle-aged mom friends whose daughters all participated in a (ripped-from-the-headlines) pregnancy pact. The women found solace in knitting together in a converted barn in their quaint New England town. I’m just saying: TYC.
Many of us are drawn to feel-good books, which explains why I finally picked up Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens’ debut novel (published when she was 70!) that skyrocketed up the charts, no doubt helped by Reese Witherspoon’s endorsement. Full disclosure: I went into this book wary of all the hype it’s received. But I was also hesitant because in the span of one week, I heard from/read about three non-related North Carolinians who were annoyed with some of the geographic license Owens took. (The one complaint that came up repeatedly – in separate exchanges – is that no one from the marshy coast would travel all the way to Asheville to buy a bicycle.) Similarly, the premise of the book – a young girl named Kya essentially raises herself in Carolina swampland after her entire family abandons her one-by-one like falling dominoes – seems, well, implausible.
Crawdads, at its core, is a meditation on loneliness, isolation, and the effects of (a lack of) connection. Not to overstate things, but it feels tragic. According to a March piece in the New York Times, Owens wrote this on her website: “‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ is about loneliness. I have lived an isolated and lonely life, but from the moment my incredible readers picked up the book, I have not felt alone again.” This is a rich, rich theme to explore and Owens does it well. The book time shifts each chapter as readers are brought from Kya’s childhood to her role as defendant in the trial following the death of small-town golden boy Chase Andrews. How is she ensnared as a defendant? Well, she’s mostly known as “Marsh Girl” – untouchable, taboo, and unsavory – to the people of fictitious Barkley Cove. That characterization plus some circumstantial evidence land her in the middle of Barkley Cove’s bullseye.
Here are some moving lines from Kya, who narrates the book:
“But loneliness has a compass of its own.”
“Please don’t talk to me about isolation. No one has to tell me how it changes a person. I have lived it. I am isolation.”
And then there’s this one:
“Being isolated was one thing; living in fear, quite another…Dreams of escape—even through death—always lift toward the light. The dangling, shiny prize of peace just out of grasp until finally her body descends to the bottom and settles in murky quiet. Safe.”
Kya’s situation is tragic (and, again, a tiny bit unbelievable). She treasures one solid connection with Jumpin’, the black proprietor of a gas shop for boats, but otherwise is left to her own devices until she gets a bit older. Nonetheless, she carves out a life for herself. I don’t want to provide any spoilers for those who haven’t read the book, but “Marsh Girl” provides “pipe dream” readers (the ones who secretly wish to find success by quietly and secretly plugging along at something they enjoy – which, by the way, is probably many of us) a gasp of hope. In the end, Kya – in some weird, roundabout way – gets a life that some may envy. (Not that anyone envies being held in jail while on trial for murder. This is what I mean by Tragic Yet Cozy.)
While I understand Owens’ plot arc and story-development tools (and also that many of us read for “escapism”), this narrative bothered me. And I blame TED talk phenom Brené Brown.
Two months ago, my husband made me watch her Netflix special. Daring Greatly, based on her book of the same name, dives right in to Brown’s work on vulnerability, shame, and courage. (In the event that you’re not familiar with her, Brown – PhD and LMSW – is a professor at the University of Houston College of Social Work. She catapulted to fame in 2011 when TED showcased her TEDx talk on its main channel. Interestingly, my husband – a frequent business traveler – used to download TED talks to watch on his long flights. I think he caught this one right when it was published, so he’s been on the BB bandwagon since the beginning.) I’ve been taking some bold steps when it comes to my own career, and with attempts at “bold” comes opening up and being “out there” – and for a lot of people, myself included, that is scary. Here’s where Brown comes in:
Her first book ties together her experience with instant fame (and the inevitable criticism that goes along with that) and her academic work with vulnerability and shame. She roots this book in a speech she discovered after spending a day wallowing in the nasty comments on YouTube. (Never mind that the positive comments far outweighed the mean ones. We all know which type of comment humans internalize more.) Here is an excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship in a Republic,” sometimes referred to as “The Man in the Arena”:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,
because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”
This is why these TYC protagonists rub me the wrong way. Frankly, they are not in the arena. In fact, they are hiding. (However, I would like to give a real-life round of applause to Owens. Contrary to myth, novels don’t get plucked out of thin air. Authors must hustle and, yes, get in the arena.) I get it: Maybe the moral is that one can find peace in his or her own way. But just like traveling to Asheville for a big shopping trip rang untrue for many, magically creating a life of peace without ever getting in the arena seems far-fetched. It takes a lot of guts to keep showing one’s face in an unwelcoming place. Thus sets the tone for Kya wanting to escape into her own world, which may sound cozy at first – particularly to people who feel beaten down by their environment – but in the end, may just ring of personal tragedy. Tragic Not Cozy.
For a fictional take on a young woman who turns extreme loneliness and ostracism into a way to “get in the arena,” please check out Wayétu Moore’s acclaimed debut, She Would Be King. You can read my post about that book here.
As I mentioned, I, too, am “stepping in the arena.” Specifically, I’m producing a community literary event – called Book Covers – at Amazing Things Art Center in Framingham on Thursday, November 14. This evening will be a teaser event for something bigger that is in the works. I am still finalizing some details before I start a real marketing push, but I invite you to poke around my redesigned website. (Also coming soon: An amazing ‘A Lifely Read’ logo designed by my friend Bethany!)