Book Review: Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willet

Fiction set in Rhode Island seems to feature people of disturbing difunctionality. It’s true of the writings of Spalding Grey. The same goes for Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone which would actually make good companion reading for this book. Then there’s the film oeuvre of the Farrelly Brothers. There’s something about our neighbors to the South. Then again John Irving and Stephen King are evidence that a twisted nature exists in northern New England as well.

Jincy Willet keeps the tradition alive with The Winner of the National Book Award which stradles the boundary between quirky and disturbing. And yes that is the title of the book. No, it did not receive the award but it does have the honor of being the William & Mary Alumni Boston Chapter book club selection for February.

Willet’s novel is about twin sisters Dorcas and Abigail. Dorcas, who narrates the novel, is cynical, intellectual (although she claims not to be), cranky and disinterested in all things carnal. Her polar opposite Abigail is fleshy, lazy and lives for sensual pleasure. There are highly symbolic passages about their being two halves of a complete person, but I pass over those parts. The third character of this novel is the misogynist sociopath Conrad Lowe whom Abigail marries. Despite his abusive nature, Abigail submits to him, and despite being able to see right through him, Dorcas collaborates with him.

The novel begins with Dorcas going to her job at the library during a hurricane (I try not to grate my teeth that even this sassy, self-assured woman falls into the librarian stereotype of a celibate old maid). She cannot avoid picking up and reading the new tell-all, true crime, Lifetime Movie of the Week, autobiography written by Abigail to explain why she murdered Conrad. This basically serves as the framing device as each chapter begins with an excerpt from Abigail’s book followed by extensive commentary from Dorcas of what really happened. Of course, which sister can really be trusted is central to the tension of the novel.

I shant go into the details of the novel, but as Dorcas narration of their life grows increasingly strange as it progresses. The story revolves around the growing triangle of hate among Dorcas, Abigail, and Conrad as well as amusing side characters such as the pretentious poet Guy and his useless wife Hilda (who co-writes Abigail’s book). The novel is subtitled “A Novel of Fame, Honor, and Really Bad Weather”, the latter coming in both the hurricane in the framing story and in the climax of the novel which occurs during The Blizzard of ’78 (which coincidentally began on February 6, the same day I completed reading this book).

The novel in the end turns out to be about sisterly love although one wouldn’t expect it from the snarky tone in which the book begins. I give it good but not great marks. Definitely something I reccomend more highly to a New Englander than to anyone from another region.

Interesting Quotes:

Rhode Island natives, including those born overseas, are under ordinary circumstances so shy and mistrustful around people they don’t know as to seem almost deranged. They never look as stranger in the eye, or if they do, they unfocus their own eyes. I don’t mean a stranger you pass in the street, I mean a stranger who’s lived next door to you for twenty-five years, or a stranger you ask directions from or hand his dropped wallet to or knock down with your car.

This probably has something to do with the tradition of overcrowding, of living cheek by jowl for two hundred years. Whatever the cause, we have no stage presence at all, no Southern theatrics, Midwestern irony, Western hyperbole, New York cynicism. We don’t even have the famous and overrated Maine understatement. We have instead an Unfortunate Manner. (p. 5)

Reading was not an escape for her, any more than it is for me. It was an aspect of direct experience. She distinguished, of course, between the fictional world and the real one, in which she had to prepare dinners and so on. Still, for us, the fictional world was an extension of the real, and in no way a substitute for it, or refuge from it. Any more than sleeping is a substitute for waking. (p. 53)

That’s one fine thing about Rhode Island, and most of New England, and New York, too. No, no New York. New Yorkers genuinely have no curiosity. They don’t want to know. New Englanders do, but they’ll be damned if they’ll ask. … No one ever asked what happened. They stared, but they didn’t wink or smile, and they didn’t ask.

Because (a) it was none of their business; and (b) they didn’t want to give us the satisfaction.

C.S. Lewis never sold me on mere Christianity, be he did assure me that I wasn’t neurotic. It was possible to live an imagined life, and to live it fully. To dwell within one’s mind and, through books, the minds of others.

You escape, said Abe Marx, into your books. I didn’t have the with then, quite, for the obvious riposte: I escape, when I feel the need, into what all you bullies insist is reality. I study birds, library patrons, local politicians. Sometimes I garden. Sometimes I watch the Sox. Sometimes I drink. I keep a neat house and I pay my taxes, all in the real world. But I don’t live there.

Of course, Lewis was a scholar, and I am not. I do have a reputation, locally, as something of an intellectual, but this is wrong. I am simply an omnivorous reader, and like all good omnivores I take my pleasures where I find them. In my real life, my inner life, I am as great a sensualist as my sister. (p. 279)

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