It’s easy to get excited at the prospect of a poet turning novelist. Surely, it’s tempting to think, 350 pages of sumptuous work by a writer accustomed to crafting miniature wordscapes will be a much richer experience than a manuscript of equivalent length churned out by a novelist who’s used to shoveling piles of prose around. Really, though, having a poet write a novel is about as good an idea as having a sculptor build a skyscraper.
|the rose variations, a novel by marisha chamberlain. published by soho press (2009). $24.00.|
Minnesotan poet Marisha Chamberlain has just published her debut novel, The Rose Variations. It’s the maddeningly meandering story of Rose MacGregor, a young composer who arrives in St. Paul in the 1970s to take a temporary teaching gig at an unnamed Macalester College (Chamberlain’s alma mater). We follow Rose as she wends her way among lovers and would-be lovers, searching for her place in the world. By the end of the book, several years have elapsed and Rose has at last found a place that may or may not be her place but at least is permanent enough that we are mercifully allowed to take leave of her.
“Rose MacGowan is my kind of heroine,” gushes Judith Guest in a back-cover blurb. Guest is the author of Ordinary People, and Rose’s plight is one that may indeed have been ordinary for women of her generation of a certain social class and intellectual persuasion—the anomie of endless possibility, in contrast to their mothers’ more restricted romantic options. Maybe a lot of women were, and are, as confused as Rose; maybe they do feel as buffeted by the winds of fate and folly, stumbling from one unsatisfying partnering to another with a growing sense of discouragement. If so, why couldn’t we have been put in the head of one whose inner monologue isn’t so damn whiny? Rose finds a mentor in the person of an elderly Quaker woman, but I think that what she needed was someone more like Cher in Moonstruck: “Snap out of it!”
Beyond Chamberlain’s agonizing versimilitude in portraying a soul adrift, the author seems to be very much in the process of finding her novelistic sea legs. Rose’s potential partners appear with rumbles of foreboding, so we can pretty well guess which guns (so to speak) in the first act will go off in the third. Long sections of the novel read like the summary of a story rather than a story itself—we’re perpetually being brought up to speed on things that happen when we’re not looking, as time lapses in eccentric intervals. Even the Good Parts are sometimes told in retrospect: the narrative jumps past an encounter, then we get filled in later. The technique has the effect of distancing the reader from the life of a woman who feels distanced from her own life.
As a St. Paul native and a fan of classical music, I expected to at least enjoy the book’s setting and subject—but as for the setting, it’s touched on relatively lightly (and what we do learn about St. Paul makes it seem uptight and provincial); as for the subject, if Chamberlain has any real knowledge of classical music or feeling for the process of composition, it doesn’t come through in the novel. We’re told Rose is writing, then we’re given a sketchy sense of the kind of thing she wrote and we’re told it’s brilliant. That’s true, in fact, of The Rose Variations itself—Chamberlain has told us about a brilliant novel rather than given us one.