A flame rekindled
One of the greatest joys of entering a new book occurs when we notice — straightaway if we’re lucky — that its voice gives steady pleasure. Relieved, intrigued, we think: I’m in — like falling happily into step alongside someone we’ve just met, because their conversation feels provocative and promising.
“Pages for Her,” Berkeley author Sylvia Brownrigg’s deeply thoughtful, absorbing fifth novel, gives exactly this pleasure. It opens upon author and mother Flannery Jansen comparing the Bay Area autumn’s “sibling rivalry between fog and sun” with that of her college years in New England: “A geography she associated with the opening of her mind and body, and the much philosophized problem between the two ... where broad old elms and maples burst into color ... [promising] the harsh but stimulating winter to come.”
And we’re in. “Pages for Her” is a sequel — 20 years on, in its characters’ lives — to “Pages for You” (2001), which made a significant splash as a kind of erotic bildungsroman, tracking then-18-year-old Flannery’s sexual (and intellectual) awakening in an intense affair with her then-teaching assistant, the sharply beautiful, imperious Anne Arden.
Readers will be glad to know that it’s not strictly necessary to read “Pages for You” first, since Brownrigg has efficiently built that novel’s essence into this sequel. In fact, reading “You” after “Her” (which I did) provides a fascinating treat, allowing us to travel back in time and eavesdrop on its characters’ younger selves.
Flannery, now about 38, lives in a luscious-sounding, renovated house in the Upper Haight with her adorable, preschool-age daughter Willa, and her ebullient, abrasive husband Charles, an iconoclastic and much-sought installation artist. They live well; Flannery teaches part time, adores her daughter, and has found ways to tolerate the explosive, domineering Charles (“half walrus, half genius”). But mothering and wife-ing threaten to erase a part of herself she’d once felt elemental: the writer. “That Flannery had authored two books was of less import ... than the fact that at the age of three Willa had liked to eat olives and mushrooms.” With disuse, internal confidence has waned. “Had Flannery ever written, actually? Had there been any point to it, if she had?”
Like some of literature’s most delicious stories, “Pages for Her” commences with the arrival of a letter: an invitation from her old university to take part in a writers’ conference. Its list of participants mentions a Professor Anne Arden. “Her Anne.” Brownrigg gracefully pours in multiple backstories: Flannery’s prior impassioned, doomed affair with Anne, followed by gypsying with a new girlfriend (on which Flannery has based a successful novel); then, latterly, being drawn into the insatiable vortex of Charles. Flannery mulls the sequence: “Bisexuality ... a simple, ubiquitous, underspoken truth about the human heart — always sounded like a science project, and not the prize-winning kind. It confused people. To describe yourself that way made you seem shifty and indecisive.”
Nonetheless, it’s Charles she’s (uneasily) settled with when the invite arrives. “Flannery admired his certainty ... his ability to organize the world around him ... She had always responded to people, men or women, who had clarity and edge ... the ability to be definite, something she often lacked.” “Pages for Her” is filled with such rich considerations — of meaning, direction, comparative ways of being — in restless, sensuous prose.
When Flannery learns, to her bafflement, that Anne’s longtime partner, the brilliant professor Jasper Elliott, now lives in Paris “with his wife and two sons,” she grasps that something’s off. “There were never going to be children. Not for Anne . ... If there were sons, Flannery knew, then Jasper Elliott’s wife could not be Anne.”
Of course, Flannery will head for that conference. But before we’re allowed to glimpse what happens there, “Pages for Her” segues neatly to Anne’s story, in Anne’s words — returning toward its close to Flannery, to whom the novel ultimately belongs.
Brownrigg has set herself a stiff challenge, which is to fully inhabit the minds, hearts and voices of two seasoned, gifted, but utterly distinct women: one a self-questioning novelist, the other an admired, authoritative-yet-vulnerable, semi-dislocated academic. That mission is accomplished compellingly. We’re glad to come to know these women, and to be taught by what happens between them. Reading (or rereading) “Pages for You,” as a kind of coda, makes it even better.
Pages for Her By Sylvia Brownrigg (Counterpoint; 375 pages; $26)