Friday, 24 May 2013
Summer Melody by Toddie Downs
5 out of 5 stars
Toddie Downs is an interesting new author and her first novel, Summer Melody, is an enjoyable and promising start to what will hopefully be a long, successful career. Downs weaves her story with skill, taking the plot to diverse places, but, at the same time, tying things together neatly.
Jane (14 years), her cousin Meg (18 years) and Bonnie (Jane’s mother) all live in, or near, the small Connecticut town of Daedalus Falls. In one long summer all three women will face challenges to their previously predictable lives: Jane will tackle the problems of a first job, Meg will confront the possibility of a permanent relationship with a man, and Bonnie will be forced to confront unresolved, past difficulties with her family. How will the sometimes traumatic events of this summer end?
Summer Melody is very much about women and almost all the characters in it are of that sex. Downs depicts women of the past four generations. We meet Elizabeth, Bonnie’s mother, who is a woman of the traditional, patriarchal 1950’s, now very old. Vivian, Meg’s mother, is a child of the 60’s counterculture. Bonnie is of the retro-conservative Generation X. Jane and Meg are born in the period of Generation Y, with its emphasis on personal freedoms and achievements. These generational descriptions can help us to understand Summer Melody, however, Downs has very much tried to create people and her characters are thus complex, ambiguous and sometimes contrary to the observe trends of their period. Elizabeth, for example, very much bucks the heavy social constraints of her time, yet she has somehow come to be the typical American matriarch, so prominent in 1950’s culture, who dominates the family arena (as opposed to the male work arena). As the novel progresses we learn more and more of her history and the complexity of her personality and her circumstances. This is a very likable book and the characters in it are immediately pleasant and agreeable to the reader, if not perfectly so. We care about these characters and are willing to stick with them through their trials and despite their imperfections. Once again taking Elizabeth as an example we see that we admire her feistiness and honesty, although she is often gruff. In a similar way Jane is petulant, but deep thinking, Meg lacks commitment but is very friendly and Bonnie is overly conventional but caring. In ‘real’ life nobody is perfect and we like our friends, but also see their faults.
Summer Melody is very much a social realism novel, though it has moments of humor to lighten the mood. Much of this humor comes as snappy character descriptions and mood references to book, TV and movie titles. For example in the beginning of Chapter 3 we read:
“Meg wandered around the display, assisting the mannequins in tying the aprons around their waists. The store was beginning to resemble a scene from The Stepford Wives.”
Of course this friendly little shop is far from the shady world of that satirical thriller. As a point of criticism, however, it should be noted that in Chapter 17 the snappy comments are misplaced. At a point of crisis we read:
“She just wanted to fall under a sleeping spell and let tiny dwarves care for her until this was over.”
The lightness of the “tiny dwarves” clashes with the very serious mood.
The novel is written in alternating chapters: first from Jane’s point of view, them Bonnie’s, then Meg’s. This adds considerable variety and depth to the text as we see events from different people’s perspective: we are not limited to one version of the truth. This postmodern departure from the traditional main character, or omniscient narrator, is very welcome. As a result different readers may come to different conclusions about the ‘truth’ of this novel. Once again this complexity and ambiguity makes the novel more ‘real’.
In fairly standard plot structure, though, the book slowly rises to crisis at mid-point, lulls, then peaks again, ending in resolution with all the plot lines coming to closure. There are some very real ‘Oh-my-God’ moments in this book, and a few cliff-hanger chapter endings. This of course keeps the reader’s interest.
As the title of the novel suggests, music is an important symbol in the text. As different characters encounter melody they find it soothing and uplifting. We are given an idea of the rhythm of life, of joining with the flow. The town of Daedalus Falls is very “twee,” a cut-out-town from a painting depicting past life on another continent. We are given an image of traditional convention and past rules. Nature imagery occasionally appears as a calm alternative to our hectic lives, however, even there trouble can lurk.
Downs has taken the main theme of personal isolation verses relationship. At the very beginning of the book Janes meets an autistic boy, Charley, who passively sits, playing with his toys, while bullies throw stones at him. A little later Jane musses:
“She wondered if Sam sat alone in the cafeteria in his Pittsburgh school. Maybe Charley didn’t have it so bad after all. Maybe the key to being different was not knowing or caring you were different.”
In our over-stimulated, numbed 21st century life maybe we are all a bit like Charley, but is this really how we should live? Surely part of happiness involves reaching out? This is, indeed, exactly what positive psychology teaches us. (Martin E.P. Seligman. Authentic Happiness: Random House Australia, 2002, p. 42-43, 56) In the novel Jane is a loner, Meg is constantly breaking up with her boyfriends, Bonnie is divorced, Vivian, Meg’s mother, is divorced plus estranged from Elizabeth plus partially estranged from Meg, and finally Brady, Meg’s current boyfriend, has partially broken with his mother. The characters sometimes admit that they have no feelings towards those who could be close. Both Jane and Meg, for example, don’t really connect at all with Elizabeth. This is denial in order to avoid being hurt.
Religion is a further sub-theme of the book. In religion we think of ethics (how to act correctly in relationship with others) and compassion (right attitude towards others). If we are to choose to come out of isolation how should things really be, and, more importantly, how should we make them? At points of crisis in the novel people pray (even though they are not Christian). There is an important, symbolic Madonna and child scene. Vivian is very much a Christian, though we do not always agree with her pat responses to life. The question of mercy also is important in the book. What is it to truly be merciful? Bonnie, at one point admits to having a kind of free “Unitarian” philosophy. She is ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’ and, indeed, this sums up a great deal of the book. To Downs’ credit these questions about life are recognised as complex and difficult, with no easy answers. The idea that relationship is central to Christianity, the U.S.’s dominant religion, was popularized by Bruce Larson’s book No Longer Strangers: An Introduction To Relational Theology (Word Books, 1973). This book came out of the Jesus People and the Jesus Revolution of the late 1960’s/early 1970’s. Interestingly this is when Vivian discovered her faith and is the point which she seems, at least partly, to lack. To sum up, Downs hints that religion, or at least spirituality, is a source of interpersonal unity. This is certainly positive psychology’s notion. (Martin E.P. Seligman, p. 59-60)
As we have noted this is very much a book about women and Feminists will find Summer Melody quite an interesting read. In many ways this book documents “Second Wave Feminism” (Cathia Jenainati. Introducing Feminism: Icon Books, 2010, p. 85-86), although it is certainly not a history book, so to speak. Elizabeth came to maturity in the era which Betty Friedan later called “the feminine mystique” (Jenainati , p. 76, 90-94), in which the traditional view of femininity (cooking, children, frilly dresses and empty headedness) were very much in style. Headstrong and determined, she is a pioneer feminist in a pre-feminist world. In such a world what does it take to do what a woman really wants, and what are the costs of trying? In her younger days, Vivian, disobedient to her mother and absolutely determined to be the complete person she is, was the typical 1960’s Woman’s Liberationist. (Jenainati, p. 87-89) We wonder how and why she became the conservative, praying for the lost, ‘born again’ Christian that she is? Bonnie is a single mother working successfully in a doctor’s office, but at the same time is a caring mother equally centered in the family. She is the type of person Betty Friedan proposed a woman should be. (Jenainati, p. 92-94) Friedan’s ideas were popularized and followed generally in the 70s and 80s. Bonnie, however, is in many ways too conventional. She wants to do the ‘right thing’, but this often leads her to do what society says rather than what is necessarily the ‘best’ option. Should she really be running around looking after her mother if she really doesn’t like her, and especially when it is running her ragged? Meg is a young woman intrigued by the idea of romance but unable to find a man who, at least in her mind, does not take her for granted. She is the type of woman Tania Modleski identified in her book Loving With A Vengeance (1982). Leaving her imperfect boyfriends may be an act of rebellion, but is Meg’s judgements of the men she knows really accurate? Jane, though certainly not yet a completely grown woman, is determined to be the kind of female she is. At 14 as a hang-over Tom Boy she rejects ‘girly’ dresses, buying boys shirts and pants. The post-modernist (deconstructive feminist) theorist Judith Butler argued that cross-dressing is “an activity which challenges the neat distinction of sex and gender which heterosexual discourse has initiated.” She says that, “Cross-dressing provides the individual with a wider concept of gender identity which does not normalize male/female dualism.” (Jenainati, p. 163) But does following her very individual course mean that Jane necessarily has to be the social isolate that she is? As we can see Summer Melody has things to say that has much to do with later feminism, however, nothing is taken unassessed and unquestioned. We all take a philosophic stance towards life, whether or not we see ourselves as philosophers, but taking a line, whatever it may be, always has both its pros and cons, its extremes and its difficulties. Despite all that I have just written I certainly want to stress that this is not a ‘heavy’ book in any way. Downs manages the difficult feat of being very entertaining while at the same time giving information and insight. We in no way feel we have been lectured.
By contrast to the Feminist perspective, except for Jane, who is not really transvestite as far as we know, LGBTIQ characters are completely absent from the novel. This is a noted oversight as lesbianism has been both the accusation of patriarchal traditionalism against Feminism, and indeed any woman who does not fit in, and the vaunted, pet theory of radical, left Feminism. In today’s world we know quite well that is virtually impossible to live life without knowing LGBTIQ people, though they may be closeted. Where are these people in Down’s novel we ask? She is in other respects so realistic.
People of African descent do get a mention, though they are minor characters. Carla, Meg’s employer, is African/Jamaican/American. She is the successful owner and manager of “Yesteryear’s Vintage Clothes,” and is likable, supportive, understanding and a true friend. No negative images there, but we could wonder if Downs has erred in making Carla too perfect. Rodney, the “colored” old people’s home attendant, endures Elizabeth’s bigotry. He is understanding and rises above others' abuse, but is not above a touch of ironic humor. Like Feminism, the issue of the African/American minority is handled in a questioning, balanced way. Because of his naively liberal beliefs, Brady, Meg’s boyfriend, very much suffers at the hands of a gang of lower-classed, “colored” youths. Brady then wants to move to the very white Daedalus Falls because it is “safe.”
Other cultural minorities are absent, which once again is a bit of an oversight as for long periods the U.S. has had a positive immigration program. We also ask what of the indigenous U.S. nations?
The old, as an oppressed minority, is briefly touched upon. As Rodney and Bonnie talk about her in her presence Elizabeth comments, “I’m right here.”
This leads us to consider the novel from the broader perspective of society in general. The notion that money is power very much occurs in the lives of Elizabeth and Mona. Equally the issue of conformity is strong in the lives of Bonnie and Vivian. This conformity enshrines upper and middle class power, but also holds real people in a narrow cell. All this of course is just what the Marxist critique proposes about the U.S. Marxist Feminism proposes that economic equality of the sexes and freedom for women is necessary for females to truly develop their own potential and power. (Jenainati, p. 98-99) Summer Melody is a Middle class and Upper class novel: Lower class women are completely absent. Marxist Feminists criticized the Woman’s Liberation Movement because it only pursued goals relevant to those classes (Jenainati, p., 100, 114-16) and they would possibly frown at Downs for her oversight. In her defence, however, it certainly should be noted that this book is specifically about people connected to Daedalus Falls, a decidedly white, moneyed traditional place. People from there would certainly tend not to mix with the Lower class, or even notice them. Interestingly the place where Bonnie and Vivian grew up, “MacArthur Country”, on the Ohio/Kentucky border, is conventional, slow and inefficient, but on the other hand very friendly. Once again things have their pros and cons, though they are especially relevant to the issue of isolation verses relationship.
From the perspective of psychology Summer Melody is a quite successful book. By far the most important insight which the novel gives is that relationships are complex. As children we tend to divide the world into ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ and unfortunately for a lot of us this inclination can hang on into adulthood, although not so simplistically. We all do and say things we regret. Even our ‘best friend’ will at times disappoint us. The real question is how do we respond to these difficulties and what will be the impact on other people. The plot line about Brady is psychologically correct and insightful. Although it is never explicitly stated he clearly suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Downs certainly seems to have done her research here. Beyond that special case the issue of general stress is handled well. We see that people tend to deny stress and that this can have quite bad results as time goes on. Most importantly on this point we all need to talk about our difficulties in a positive nurturing friendship (Judith Orloff. Positive Energy: 10 Extraordinary Perceptions For Transforming Fatigue, Stress, and Fear Into Vibrance, Strength, And Love: Three Rives Press, Ch. 8) and that is exactly what these women do: support one another. Also physical touch, as simple as a hand on the shoulder, or a more adventurous hug, gives us real support in times of stress. (Orloff, p. 7-8 & Ch. 5) Of course problems develop when we don’t talk, in order to resolve our issues, directly with those people we have difficulties with. Once again Downs is well researched and psychologically correct on these points. Of course this is not a textbook on stress. It is an entertaining story about people.
Summer Melody is an enjoyable, insightful and balance novel about women. Readers are left with the feeling that they have come across something close to life. If you are a man with an open mind this book can, in a pleasurable way, help you to better understand what it is to be a woman. If you are a woman you will immediately feel kinship to these characters and you will also be gently guided to think deeper about your experience as a female. Despite all I have said about Feminism, Marxism and social history this book is first and foremost pure pleasurable reading. This is not a musty, scholarly tome in any way. It is well worth a 5 out of 5 star rating.