Made My Day

KIRKUS REVIEWS (starred, up-front essay)
March 1, 2010
By Martha McPhee

Nearly everybody who reads—newspapers, magazines and websites, in addition to fiction—recognizes the plight of the midlist novelist. Not the brand-name superstar, whose annual connect-the-dots release invariably shoots to the top of the bestseller list. Not the highly touted newcomer, whose debut captures the fancy of so many critics, with raves spawning a flurry of other raves, a consensus that will likely curdle with the sophomore effort. Not even the literary trophy novelist, whose renown far exceeds any recent commercial success, but whose prestige adds luster to the publisher’s catalog.

No, the classic midlister is no household name, except in the households of some book reviewers, and perhaps in those of the few others who avidly monitor book reviews. Such a readership might represent a cult fandom and guarantee sales in the low thousands. Enough that some imprint, though maybe not the same one, will publish the author’s next novel, without expectations on anyone’s part that it will fare much better.

Martha McPhee’s fourth novel wouldn’t be so funny if it didn’t ring so true. As the narrator of Dear Money, India Palmer has published four novels, none of which has sold more than 5,000 copies, and has written a fifth, which she had “come to hope…would be the winning ticket in the literary lottery where art met commerce.”

Though it would be a mistake to reduce India to an authorial stand-in, the delicious irony of McPhee’s novel is that it deserves to be her own lottery winner, the breakout book that attracts a popular readership exceeding those drawn by the critical notices and prize nominations for her earlier work. Yet her novel recognizes what a daunting challenge this is, how the publishing industry and celebrity culture make it easier for a tabula rasa newcomer to achieve such attention than for an author who has already established a track record.

Finding herself “consumed by want,” India suffers even more because she and her artist husband have become close friends with a wealthier couple who can easily afford the standard of living to which the novelist guiltily aspires. Their expansive social circle encompasses a playboy financier who tempts India into something like an affair, only one where the lust is for money.

McPhee has a lot of fun with a couple of archetypes—a Pygmalion transformation of the novelist into a financial high roller and a “city mouse/country mouse” exchange of ambitions—but what makes this novel work so well is that India continues to engage the reader’s empathy, even affection, as she forsakes literary high-mindedness for filthy lucre. The novel reflects just how much of an industry publishing is, and how success in financial speculation involves crafting a compelling narrative.

Upping the metafictional ante is the question of whether India’s bond-trading experiences will inspire her to write another novel—maybe even one as culturally subversive as McPhee’s.

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$$$Classic Novels About Money$$$


Dear Money, my new novel, has, as the title suggests, a lot to do with money.  I became interested in the topic as extreme wealth rose all around me in the heady days of mortgage-backed securities.  Money is a glorious and dirty topic and, it seems, everyone has something to say about it.  While writing the novel I looked to the Victorians for fun and inspiration, among others.  They were obsessed with money and used it as a lens through which to see the hypocrisy and foolishness of their society.  I tell my students that a writer writes and a writer reads.  These are the novels I was reading, all brilliant on money. 

The Bronte Sisters — to borrow from my sister, Jenny: “The Bronte sisters tackle the problem of money, what it does to you if you have it, what it does to you if you don’t.”

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope.   I especially love the aging, matronly novelist, struggling with her desire for success and her income.  Her desperation. 

The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope 

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray 

The Financier by Theodore Dreiser 

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton 

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton 

The Great Gatsby.  Fitzgerald’s obsession with money lead to so much of his best writing.  (I borrowed the title Dear Money from him.  He discarded it.  “Where Do Titles Come From?” 

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe.   (When I asked the bond trader who helped teach me about his world to recommend books, the first was Bonfire.  The others were Market Wizards: Interviews With Top Traders and Frank J. Fabrozzi’s The Handbook of Mortgage-Backed Securities — heavy lifting, definitely not a novel.) 

In my reading and thinking, I was most interested in the female characters of Lily Bart, Undine Spragg, Scarlett O’Hara (though I didn’t re-read Gone With The Wind), Becky Sharp.  I often wondered who those women would be today.  How would they have acted had they found themselves in the 21st Century? 

Novels about money that I haven’t yet read but want to read: 

New Grub Street by George Gissing which Jenny loved.  She says, “It is entirely about the terrible compromises a writer must make for the love of money.”  

Money by Martin Amis 

And now there are two new novels, published right now, for my list: 

The Privileges by Jonathan Dee 

Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett 

Please add to the list.

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Excellent Advice: Edith Wharton On Dialogue

This is not Edith Wharton, of course, but I always think of Wharton when I admire this picture of my grandmother.  My grandmother aspired to looking like an Edith Wharton character.  Better yet, Edith Wharton.  She dressed up specially (note, in addition to the fantastic hat and blouse, the leather driving gloves and pocketbook) and had my mother take the picture. 
In the past month my students have been going crazy with dialogue in their stories.  Here is some advice from Wharton for us all:
“…dialogue, that precious adjunct, should never be more than an adjunct, and one to be used as skillfully and sparingly as the drop of condiment which flavours a whole dish.
“The use of dialogue in fiction seems to be one of the few things about which a fairly definite rule may be laid down.  It should be reserved for the culminating moments, and regarded as the spray into which the great wave of narrative breaks in curving toward the watcher on the shore.”
From The Writing of Fiction by Edith Wharton.

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My Valentine


Jasper’s due date was my daughter’s birthday.  She was turning four that year and I worried that she’d feel neglected if Jasper arrived on her day.  A friend suggested I throw Livia a big party a few weeks before.  I chose Valentine’s Day.  I invited all her friends and all their parents and made an enormous feast and decorated the apartment and ordered a ridiculously expensive cake.  Jasper’s arrival would not steal from her.  The night before the party, having just finished the last preparations, I lay down.  My mother, who was coming to help, called to say she was stuck in traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel.  I told her not to worry, that I was in good shape for the party.  Just then I felt an enormous gush of water.  “I think my water just broke,” I said to my mother.  Indeed it had.  Jasper was born the next day, Valentine’s Day.  And, of course, Livia didn’t care.  And now 6 years later this is Jasper’s favorite story.  He asks me to repeat it all the time.  We have told him he couldn’t wait, he wanted to be at the party, that he likes to be right in the middle of everything—where the action is.  “I love to be in the middle of everything,” he says.  My love, my Valentine for life.

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Travel Is the Most Important Form Of Education

Don’t forget Haiti

We went to Haiti when I was twelve years old. My stepfather, Dan, believed his kids should know the world, that traveling was the most important form education. If it had been up to him we wouldn’t have gone to school. Rather we would have traversed the globe. We went to Haiti because he loved it.  He had been both divorced and then remarried (to my mother) there. Their honeymoon was a hike from Kenscoff to Marigot through the mountains.  It was unclear if the divorce and the marriage were recognized in the States, but they were recognized by Dan and in turn by us, his ten children, so the rest didn’t really matter.

My mother and Dan on their honeymoon

We went for the month of August and stayed in Port-au-Prince at the Oloffson Hotel.  The older kids read The Comedians, all of us learned about Graham Greene.

After a few days, we went to Jacmel, piling into a painted truck with wobbly wheels.  It carried us over a mountain pass on a road that the French were constructing but that wasn’t quite finished.  We were warned it was too dangerous and that we shouldn’t attempt it.  Dan disagreed.  Huge ruts, potholes the size of ponds, hairpin turns, sheer drops, no guard rails — no matter.  Somehow we’d manage.  Dan believed in the impossible always being possible.  In the middle of the night we had to give up and retreat, back to Port-au-Prince.  The next day we boarded a tiny plane and flew to Jacmel, landing on a grass runway.  We stayed in a French colonial house with filigree balconies overlooking the sea.   It was owned by Selden Rodman, an art dealer famous for bringing Haitian art to the white world.  The ground floor of the house was an art gallery.

Many of us on the Jacmel Veranda

Haitian art was everywhere.  And Dan seemed to buy up a good amount of it with money he didn’t have, borrowed from friends and his wealthy first wife: colorful paintings, steel drums flattened and carved into trees and birds and flowers, wood panels describing the Madonna breast-feeding baby Jesus, a pair of lovers.  Dan’s idea, you see, was to open a Haitian art  gallery himself, in New Hope, Pennsylvania not far from our home.

I remember a dinner in Port-au-Prince with local artists high up in hills above the city in a beautiful home.  Names cast about: Gorgue and Gerard Paul and Andre Pierre and Jerome Polycarpe and Audes Saul and Hyppolite and S.E. Bottex — some living, some dead: all possessing a mystery in their art that Rodman described as the crystallization of joy.  I remember the crates holding the art that we transported home.

I remember visiting art markets, all of us allowed to choose our own painting.

Sarah chose an extra one, of Eve plucking the apple from the tree while Adam watched.  She paid for it herself.  The artist was  famous, named Cherisme.  Even at 16 she had an impeccable eye.

Sarah with her Cherisme in Jacmel

The art was stored in our home, is to this day — hanging on all the walls.  The wood carvings, the paintings of Virgin Marys and funeral processions and bright peach-colored flamingos and fish and turkeys, an enormous blue crab,  and women carrying baskets of fruit, water in buckets on their heads,  of a whole village of people praying outside a church, of festivals, of voodoo ceremonies presided over by voodoo priests, jungle scenes.  A screen with blue owls, the repetition making the familiar bird a comforting abstraction.  The gallery is now long gone, my stepfather dead.  My mother, strapped for cash a few years ago, was told to sell her collection of Haitian art.  She refused.  “I love it,” she said.  “I will not ever let it go.”

But I digress.  It was an education Dan, and my mother, wanted to give to us.  They wanted us to understand what the world was, that it was much more complicated than the small and safe circumference of our comfortable (if exotic hippie) life in Ringoes, New Jersey.  On the streets of Haiti I began to see a world that I had not known before, a world that began to open up my twelve-year-old eyes. I saw people who had walked for miles to sell their food at the market.  I saw people disfigured by disease.  I saw small children with distended bellies.  I saw an old woman die in the road.  I saw soldiers with AK47s and learned of the TonTon Macoutes and of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier.  I began to understand that governments weren’t all the same and that people worked hard and starved anyway.  I was told that because the French were defeated by the Haitians so long before, the United States directly benefited, bought a large chunk of the south (the Louisiana Purchase) for next to nothing, pennies per acre, from the French for whom it no longer served.  In short, I began to understand that nothing swims isolated and alone in the universe. I landed in the middle of a crazy, beautiful jungle — a world that felt so very far removed from my own, totally unique. But by pulling on a string one could also find a through-line linking Africa and Louisiana and somehow even me.

Dan and my mother wanted us to understand something that is a rare commodity these days — they wanted us to appreciate complexity.  They wanted us to know that we are not all the same — know that there is nuance and struggle and tremendous beauty (the falls at Bassins Bleus that you can only get to on horseback — along a palm fringed beach, up jagged switch -backs in a mountain pass), that the world thinks many different things, people live many different ways — some because they can, others because they must.  And it was their belief that if we understood this, that our minds would begin to seek complexity and even begin to suspect or distrust simple, reductive views of the world, as compelling as simplicity can be.  Travel taught me that our culture, with all it has to offer, all its power and possibility and privilege, is but one small and limited portal on the truth of life’s vast and horrifying and marvelous spectrum.

I won’t forget Haiti.

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