Okay, this book is like RIDONCULOUSLY GOOD. Seriously, there’s just no getting away from how amazing the writing is. And it’s a hard book to describe because it’s not the plot itself that makes this book, it’s the atmosphere. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” was the book that kept popping into my head early on - the way the single room took on a life of its own. The protagonist of The Beautiful Bureaucrat, Josephine, begins working at a company, AZ/ZA, at the start of the book and immediately the sense of foreboding begins. The description of the setting, this dreary monotone color with “an anxious unidentifiable sound” in the background, “like many cockroaches crawling behind the closed doors,” seeps into your soul. Josephine feels like one of the masses in Apple’s 1984 commercial, except while she’s gray, everyone around her is in color. The entire book feels like she’s a ghost walking through the world, unseen by those around her. And as the walls close in around her, the anxiety ratchets up in the reader, waiting for the knife to drop.
The whole book is less than 200 pages, but Helen Phillips makes the absolute most of it. That being said, I’m hesitant to recommend it to others. It’s like eating escargot. It may be the most unbelievably prepared escargot, just striking right at the essence of escargot, but if you don’t like snails on your plate, you won’t like it, no matter how good it is. With this book, you’ll know in the first 10 pages if you’re going to like it or not. And either you’ll love it or it won’t be for you, there’s really no middle ground.
Otto Sarony :: “Adeline Genée in Her Hunting Dance” in Dancing and Dancers of Today: the Modern Revival of Dancing as an Art by Caroline and Charles H. Caffin. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1912 / source: Crossett Library
“By Men Who Plan Beyond Tomorrow. Traveling Kitchens Deliver Packaged Dinners. Deluxe service for Tomorrow’s homes…cooked to order dinner meals brought right to the door, piping hot, on time. Ordered a day ahead from weekly menus, food is prepared en route, delivered ready to serve in ‘room service’ containers. It will be cheers from the compact, servantless homes of Tomorrow.” detail from advertisement for Seagram’s V.O. Canadian Whiskey in Time magazine May 26, 1947. AP2 .T37 v.49 pt. 2
Anita Diamant does a magnificent job of taking a relatively minor Biblical character, Dinah - cousin of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, daughter of Jacob of Jacob and Esau fame, granddaughter of Isaac of my dad almost sacrificed me because a voice told demanded it - and then forming an entire novel around her. Not only do we get a fully formed character living within Canaanite and Egyptian society, but we get to experience the plight of the woman in that time period. Similarly, rather than exploring that time period historically, Diamant gives us a beautiful narrative with which to view Dinah’s contemporary world.
This is the third book I’ve read that took a historical work and “re-imagined it” (fourth if you include John Gardner’s “Grendel”) - the other two being Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin and Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason. All three were magnificent in their own ways. Toibin goes beyond the crucifixion and examining a woman trying to come to grips with the death of her son, while his contemporaries try and build a religion around it. Mason takes the characters of the Odyssey but gives them further adventures revealing triumph and tragedy, love and heartbreak but told with a modern sense of story. And Diamant takes an unexplored character and gives her a well-developed story that explores the dynamic of womanhood and the relationships between mother and daughter not only in early history, but in a way that transcends time.