Saturday, April 19, 2008

Becoming the Protagonist of One's Own Story

Sister Noon by Karen Joy Fowler

In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen parodies the popular Gothic fiction of the time, and uses her heroine to demonstrate what can happen when some imaginative and susceptible women spend too much time reading novels. While visiting her new friends, Catherine begins to suspect her surroundings, all due to her love of Gothic novels. In the day of light, all her fears always end up having completely logical explanations until finally Catherine realizes what a fool she has been by trying to turn her life into a novel. Austen continues to explore this theme in her final novel Persuasion. She uses her characters to illustrate the effects different types of literature can have on certain personalities, and how Romanticism, in excessive amounts, could make people much too sentimental.

Throughout Sister Noon, Fowler references Lizzie Hayes's love of literature and novels, and how her imagination often runs away with her. At the end of the novel, one woman tells her that one has either time to study people or books, and it is obvious that Hayes has done the later. Seeing that Fowler would later write The Jane Austen Book Club, I thought it was interesting, though not surprising, to see Fowler use the idea of the over-imaginative reader as a protagonist and theme in this novel.

The novel is about Lizzie Hayes, a spinster in 1890's San Francisco, and how she begins to slowly re-evaluate her life. After forty years of being the proper woman, she longs for some adventure, though she still craves the good opinion of those around her. Her idea of adventure is rather tame, and mainly revolves around her fascination with Mary E. Pleasant, the notorious woman who is the subject of much of the town's gossip. Throughout the novel, many stories are told of Mary Pleasant and her past, though she only appears in a few scenes. She is accused of practising voodoo and engaging in child's trade among many other things. Lizzie is at times unreliable because she wants to believe the stories, though in reality, Mary Pleasant was a shrewd woman with good business sense, and the fact that she was rich and black was enough reason to set tongues wagging. The narrator is omniscient but tells the story from Lizzie's side the most often. However, it is easy to see just how far removed from reality Lizzie is when, for example, one chapter tells Jenny's story and then shows Lizzie's perspective (the girl that torments Jenny is seen as a guardian angel). There are also chapters where the narrator seems to be simply reporting events and is completely detached from the action.

I was hesitant about Sister Noon at first due to Lizzie. She seems dull at the beginning, and occasionally lacking in sense. However, despite her fancies, the novel is interesting, and Lizzie develops throughout the story. By the end, she shows some true strength and backbone, making decisions that aren't incredibly outrageous, but still rather scandalous in her social circles.

Also, Fowler has a great writing style and a nice handle on her prose. Even when I was unsure of the novel, I noticed that it was well-written. The narrative flows back and forth in time, showing how the mysteries surrounding Mary Pleasant and the Bell family continued to be a source of gossip with no real solutions for years to come. Mostly, it dealt with the constraints of society, and the limited positions available for women. For example, when younger, Lizzie rejected three marriage proposals, so since she didn't marry anyone her father approved of in his life, he made sure to prevent her from marrying anyone he might disapprove of after his death. If she were to marry, she would be cut out of the will, and cease to receive her allowance. For much of her life, Lizzie was resigned to her role, but by the end of the novel, she leaves the life she was pidgeon-holed into and develops a new place for herself.

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