The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar 2014, Day Seven

December 8th, 2014 | Filed under Books, Reading, The Book Maven's Literary Advent Calendar

Last weekend we went to see “The Theory of Everything,” a film that guarantees Eddie Redmayne an Oscar nod (at least) for his portrayal of Dr. Stephen Hawking from university days through middle age. While I adored Felicity Jones’s sympathetic performance as Hawking’s first wife Jane, I thought there must be more to the story–so I decided to read Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.”

As I’d suspected, the real story of Hawking’s early decades coping with motor neuron disease (which we call ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) and advancing his academic career have much more to do with his spouse’s help and determination than anyone would credit from the movie. This hit home for me in a passage where Jane Hawking describes how after her husband wins yet another important award, a female faculty member at Caltech (where the Hawkings had moved for an academic sojourn) told her that “while everyone else was praising his courage and brilliance–in a land where success is adored and failure deplored–she had said to herself that there must be someone equally courageous behind him or he simply would not be there.”

No one gets anywhere completely alone, but in the case of Hawking, he quite literally could not have gone anywhere without his wife’s assistance. By this point in their story, Stephen Hawking cannot physically do anything for himself except control a motorized wheelchair. His mind functioned brilliantly, but without someone to care for him, it too would have quickly dulled.

The Hawkings lived at the end of an era in which distaff sacrifice in marriage was often a given, and one of the persistent chords in the book is Jane Hawking’s struggle to advance her own academic career as a scholar of medieval Spanish poetry. She ultimately receives her doctorate, but admits in many passages that her work came after Stephen’s, and also after her own priorities as a wife and mother.

Which is all to say that today’s Calendar pick is one of the strangest and best I read this year.

“Shirley: A Novel” by Susan Scarf Merrell

Shirley-A NovelPriorities as a wife and mother also overwhelm the narrator of this tale, one Rose Nemser, whose husband friend has come to teach at Bennington College in the same English Department with poet Stanley Edgar Hyman and his irascible, celebrated author wife Shirley Jackson.

If you’re a Jackson fan already (and if not, why not? We should talk…), Rose Nemser, teenaged, pregnant, and vaguely “off,” will resonate. She’s just like Eleanor in “The Haunting of Hill House,” which means she misguidedly believes that being married automatically makes her a grownup and therefore someone whom other grownups will pay attention–which also means this is where any similarities to Jane Hawking end. Unlike Jane, who walked with open eyes into a union bound to face difficulties, Rose has hopes that her own marriage will turn out something like Jackson’s, although she doesn’t understand (at first or perhaps ever) exactly what compromises that entails.

Stanley takes Fred under his crotchety wing, while Shirley seems entranced by every aspect of Rose’s life and personality. At first one things “Poor Rose! Every novelist is a sort of vampire…” but the tables are turned so quickly and cleverly that the conceit is worthy of Jackson herself. (There is a great deal of Jackson on display throughout Scarf Merrell’s novel, the kind of homage that filmmakers often accord their favorite directors.)

Shirley works as a coming-of-age story for Rose, as a fisheye lens on the Hyman household, and as a sharp slice-of-life on a 1960s New England college campus. Does it also succeed as a novel of suspense? That’s up for debate, and I know some critics don’t think it does. I, however, think that Scarf Merrell intends the local murder (loosely based on a real case) less as a plot mover than as atmosphere. As Rose comes closer and closer to the heart of what makes Shirley Jackson tick, she also learns more and more about the many menacing ways in which the world treats women of all ages.

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