I like to read the back page essays in the Boston Globe Magazine. I read for the stories: the man who thought he loved his wife until he cheated on her; the child who thought they loved their parent, until the parent developed dementia and starting hurling the plate of scrambled eggs every morning; the woman who thought it wasn’t possible to fall in love, until she met the hulking, shy man who helped move boxes into her small studio apartment; the kid who couldn’t succeed until they wrote a poem that got published in a national magazine. I read those stories because they help me accept the messy process by which I live– trying, failing, sometimes succeeding, trying again. The back page stories always get knotted into a tidy bow of insight or advice. Most of the time the bow is unsatisfying. Some version of, “life is complicated.” But I don’t mind, because I have the story. The painful, lovely struggle to be human. A reminder: I’m not the only person who has no idea what they’re doing, who has hopes, and disappointments, and keeps going. The story is the message: don’t worry, dear. Nobody really understands. The trying is all that matters. Keep trying.
Last night I walked out of a horror movie, the first time I have walked out of a movie in decades, and sat in the lobby and read a book instead, waiting for my friends. The moment that made me leave was when the little boy looked up at his sister and said, “if Mom is crazy, does that mean we’re crazy, too?” The girl said no, confidently– or maybe not confidently, but confidently enough for the boy. The two of them set off to kill someone. And in that moment, the movie wasn’t entertaining anymore, because the question felt dark and true. And I thought, if you’re going to take on a question like that, please do it seriously, so I can find answers.
I have been reading Before I Fall. The protagonist is a mean girl. It turns out I like her. I like the gaps between the way she describes herself— funky, cool, having a good time— and what is probably true. The people who look at her, not in admiration, as she imagines, but disgust. The shiver of disgust she herself feels when her popular, slobbery boyfriend kisses her and leaves saliva all over her chin. The way she ignores all the clues that she is not who she thinks, and clings to the shiny version she prefers. Part of the reason I can forgive her is that she’s dead, which means she has already gotten the worst possible punishment. I don’t need to punish her, too. But also, I have hope—why start with somebody so awful unless change is coming? I keep reading to find out: when will she wake up to the truth about her former life? I learn that it’s not just character that holds my attention, but the promise of transformation. This young woman who, in spite of her flaws, makes poetic observations about the world around her— a watery sun spreading over the sky like spilled milk, the pin pricks of cold rain on the back of her hand. Maybe she can be saved.
I read The Nature of Jade, which felt burdened by too many elements— working with elephants, parents getting a divorce, runaway boy with a baby, anxiety disorder. She stitches the chapters together with epigraphs about animal behavior, making them appear connected, but they never add up to one thing, thematically. Like, Fault in Our Stars: mortality. Right at the center, all the time. How can we live, how can we love, why should we love, knowing our days are numbered?