I had known, or at any rate was capable of knowing, that Toni Morrison was our greatest living writer prior to reading Paradise. But certainly I am not capable of denying it now.
As I had mentioned before in my prior post, I had been dragging my feet about finishing the remaining Morrison books I had left unread on my shelf, because once I come to the end of them – that’s all there is. But I got over that, and I’m glad I did. On the other hand, I’m also glad I waited til now to tackle Paradise.
I read it now and experience it as a triumph of a writer in full command of her gifts, but a younger me would have perhaps expected the book to be something different – to have been another Sula, or another Jazz. I imagine my younger self demanding that it somehow be less grim, or simultaneously darker, more grim. My dissatisfaction with it would have been this nebulous, difficult-to-put-my-finger-on-it thing, and I would have probably chalked it up to either it not being as good as her prior books, or not being capable of meeting my expectations.
But all that would have been wrong. I am old enough now and have read enough books now – especially books by other black, American women writers, ones that aren’t Toni Morrison but were influenced by her, inspired by her, perhaps quite literally edited by her – that I now if I had read this book in the 90s, I simply wouldn’t have really understood enough of it – not really.
The topics she’s tackling in Paradise are more subtle than what she wrote about in Beloved and The Bluest Eye, but that’s why I would have struggled to really follow what she was getting at, and I would have put the blame on her, not on myself. But I’ve learned a lot in the last 20 years or so, enough that I can better understand what she’s building and working on in this book then I would have earlier in life.
I’m really glad I waited, because it was worth it. The book delves deep into psyches and characters, into strange places and mysterious twists that she hangs over your head for practically the whole book. Now, she does show her hand in one, maybe two sentences of the whole book – maybe. But otherwise, I found it to be an almost perfect book. I savored it!
I’m not going to summarize it for you – I’m not good at that under the best of circumstances and – come on. It’s Toni Morrison. The plot goes twisty from the first page and stays there the whole time. But she kept me in the spell of the book’s sense of place for the entire length of the book.
Well, it’s March, and it’s Women’s History Month…but isn’t it always, at least around this blog?? After Paradise, I decided to move back several decades for the two books I’m reading now. First up is Imperial Woman by Pearl S. Buck. It tells the fictionalized account of the life of Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty. This is my third Buck novel, and it’s starkly different in setting from The Good Earth and The Mother, as it takes place in the halls of the Forbidden City and not amongst average farmers.
The second goes back even further – The Brimming Cup (1919) by Dorothy Canfield (or sometimes Dorothy Canfield Fisher). She’s a really fascinating writer. If you just google her, you can see by her Wikipedia page that she was an education reformer (who brought the Montessori method to the U.S.), a supporter of women’s rights, and an author. Eleanor Roosevelt named her one of the 10 most influential women in the U.S.
And so far, I am loving her book! It has shades of all of the writers I love from the early century – Woolf, Cather, Wharton – but also a style that is unique to Canfield Fisher. The book focuses on the quiet, desperate things that happen in people’s hearts and minds when they are living in quiet mill towns and living their lives, raising their families, working their jobs. I am still working my way through, but it is showing excellent promise!
Which is a good thing, because I definitely have invested in multiple Canfield Fisher novels, so I hoped that this investment would not be a bust. So far, it’s looking good!