Jean Thompson’s coming-of-age novel is a keeper : NPR
There are books that I review and love and can’t wait to put in the hands of friends who I think will love them too. Then there’s a subset of books that I love that will never leave this house, because I want them close by – to dive into, re-read, and feel comforted with.
Sounds sentimental, I know. The poet’s house by Jean Thompson, is the newest addition to this subset of books that stays put. This is a funny, closely watched coming-of-age story about an insecure young woman drawn into a shimmering clique of poets; it’s also a wise story about the corrosive power of shame and the primal fear of appearing stupid, simple and sentimental.
Thompson’s heroine is a 21-year-old woman named Carla Sawyer. Carla has taken a few classes at her local junior college in Northern California, but, as she says, she has “one of those brains that doesn’t process the words on a page very well,” so she works for a landscaper. “It wasn’t my dream job,” she tells us, “even though I couldn’t have told what it was.”
Carla’s mother and resident boyfriend both think she is selling herself short. Carla also, in a way:
[F]from time to time [she says] I was overwhelmed with a sadness or a weirdness, a feeling of too many feelings, if that makes sense, to just stand outside of something desirable, urgent and important. And then I had to pull myself together…
One day, Carla is given the task of tidying up the grounds of a sprawling house on the edge of a canyon. He is owned by a “Mrs. Boone” who is really a well-known, older poet named “Viridian”. Here’s Carla’s first look at Viridian:
She had long gray and silver hair swept back from her forehead and standing up like a lion’s mane. She was barefoot. She wore loose white linen pants and a blue knee-length top with wide drop sleeves. I’ve seen older women wear clothes like these in Marin, doing equal parts yoga and Star Wars costumes.
Sure, Viridian is charismatic — especially since, as Carla notes, “she kept herself from easy intimacy.” After losing her job with the landscaper, Carla begins showing up at Viridian’s in the late afternoon to tend to the flowerbeds, free of charge, and then sit down with her and the other poets and writers who pass by. talk a lot, just listen [Carla says], soaking up everything. …I wanted the clothes they wore, the lives they had lived. I guess you could say I had a crush on poetry.”
Viridian reads his poems aloud, one-on-one with Carla, who then “gets” poetry for the first time. As she hesitantly ventures deeper into the world of Viridian – for example, working part-time for a prestigious poetry magazine – Carla drifts away from her boyfriend and he angrily suggests that she not is just a passing “project” for Viridian and his cronies.
Thompson is such a nuanced writer that she avoids either/or categories. Like most people, the larger-than-life Viridian is many things at once: a prima donna, sure, and a bit manipulative, but also a sincere mentor. Writing through Carla’s perspective gives the alert Thompson the opportunity to pin down the microaggressions and misunderstandings of social class that crop up again and again in conversations with Viridian’s coterie, who literally speak a different language. When, for example, the editor of this poetry magazine first approaches Carla about a job there, he says:
“I wonder if you would like to be present when we prepare the next issue of the magazine.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant [Carla tells us]. ” Be available ? »
“Help. Make phone calls. Keep track of author queries. Pick up the lunch order.
It takes a few more turns of this elegant stumble before Carla realizes that this job is unpaid.
The plot of The poet’s house culminates in a remote writers conference – always great fodder for satire – and concerns a hidden cache of treasured poems that Viridian inherited from a famous former lover. Viridian refuses to publish them and Carla must outwit the various factions who want to use her to pressure Viridian. As absorbing as this plot is, however, it’s Thompson’s charged portrayal of Carla’s hazy desire to be more that fuels this story and makes it so emotionally resonant. The poet’s house as I said, is a keeper.