While reading one of Pajiba's discussions of films of 2007, they referenced Lauren Ambrose's performance in the movie Starting Out in the Evening. Lauren Ambrose portrayed Claire in Six Feet Under, so I figured that she would probably pick an interesting, character-driven film rather than a big blockbuster. As a result, I decided to give the book a try (I didn't actually see a review of the film online, so I'm not sure how recent it is).
The novel revolves around three characters. A young grad student, Heather (this is who Ambrose plays in the film) wants to write her thesis about an out-of-print author whose books she discovered as a teenager. She tracks Schiller, now an old man, down, and convinces him to talk to her, partially appealing to his vanity because Heather hopes that her thesis can be turned into a book, and eventually lead to a reprinting of his novels. Heather hopes to begin her career with this while Schiller dreams, though he knows how unlikely, that maybe he won't be forgotten. The third character is Schiller's daughter Ariel, who is nearing forty, and desperately wants to have a child. Her relationship with her father is the most stable and supportive one in her life, and while she worries about his health, he serves as her emotional rock, having already suffered through two breakdowns.
I loved all the name dropping in the book - Heather and Schiller both are avid readers, though I'm not a particular fan of either of their favorites (Henry James and D.H. Lawrence). Through Heather and Schiller, the author explores different literary worlds - the old professors whose heyday was in the '50s, and their careful analysis and reading (this is the category Schiller most fits into), book editors and their oh-so-hip but impersonal bookshelves, and the literary critics and editors of magazines which Heather considers joining.
The character interactions are interesting - Schiller and Ariel have a loving relationship, but they also have little in common with each other. Schiller is an intellectual, whose apartment is filled with bookshelves, while Ariel hasn't even read all of her father's books, and is more of a movie person. They both accept each other's differences, but Ariel notices the connection Heather and Schiller share due to their shared interests, and feels a little disconnected and critical of their relationship. Morton devotes different chapters to all three of these characters as well as one of Ariel's boyfriends later in the novel. I liked all the characters; obviously I understood Heather and Schiller's love of books well, and agree with Heather's assessment that "part of the joy of reading was talking about what you'd read" (118). I would say that Heather is much more ambitious and forceful than I am, though, so I didn't exactly see myself in her or anything. Ariel caused the most conflict in me: I liked and understood where she was coming from in her chapters but the way others described her made her seem different.
Of all the characters, there seemed to be the largest discrepancy between Ariel's view of herself and others view of her. It's not even that her perception of herself was that different; it's just that others focused on certain things that Ariel didn't always. Heather, for example, is rather critical of Ariel's appearance and dress, and honestly, when reading the descriptions, I, too, found myself asking, why would anyone in their right mind wear that? Her boyfriend thinks of her as a "child-woman," innocent and trusting. Her goal in life is to have a child, but she and those around her know that she wouldn't be able to handle single parenthood. When she moves back to New York to look after her father after his heart attack, she thinks taking care of him will be a good distraction though he ends up taking care of her. Ariel is aware of her weaknesses (except when it comes to fashion), but others description of her make her seem even simpler than she is - though these characters think of it as a good thing (her ability to enjoy the simple things in life). She also has perhaps the most difficult decision left to make by the end of the novel, though the novel ends before she actually makes herself face it - since having a child has been one of her driving goals, she needs to determine whether to continue to look for a man who can give her that, though it may never happen, or give up that dream. Since I don't want children, the choice seems obvious to me, especially given the character's unwillingness to be a single mother, but that's me.
I'm kind of curious to see what the movie adaptation is like but given where I am, I'll probably have to wait another year (at least that gives me time to forget the minor details, and therefore not be too disappointed when they cut scenes or parts).