A three-strand theory of love and attraction

“You can be in love and still have a life, you know? You can build something.”

Jennifer Egan, The Invisible Circus

One of the really brilliant aspects of Egan’s treatment of her protagonist’s coming of age is its depiction of teenage watchfulness. At 18, Phoebe reads the world and the people around her for clues on how to build a life and make connections. Unsurprisingly, romantic relationships are a particular point of fascination for her. Here is Phoebe, spying on her sister’s former high school sweetheart and his fiancée as they hunt through apartment listings in the paper:

Carla exclaimed at something she’d found, set down her cigarette and circled the item with a stubby pencil, her other hand groping for Wolf as if for a pair of glasses or a cigarette pack, finding his wrist without lifting her eyes from the paper. The gesture transfixed Phoebe—the inadvertence of it, the thoughtlessness. Wolf rose from his chair and leaned over her, his chest to Carla’s back. He kissed her temple, breathing in her smell while his eyes perused whatever it was she’d found in the paper. The sheer ordinariness of it all confounded Phoebe, as if any one of these things might happen several times a day, with no one watching. They belong to each other, she thought, and found herself awed by the notion—knowing someone was there, just there, reaching for that person without a thought.

Phoebe, trying to wrap her head around the difference between this calm vision of domestic partnership and the wild, youthful romance she saw Wolf share with her sister, asks him how those two relationships compare. He answers, You can be in love and still have a life, you know?


Every woman should travel/live abroad alone

[For Autumn, on her current adventure] I’m in the middle of Jennifer Egan’s debut novel, The Invisible Circus, which is about an 18 year-old girl who takes off for Europe to search for the place her sister died. The account of her coming of age has gotten me reminiscing about my travels alone. I’ve already written about how finishing my dissertation and changing careers were two of the most significant rites of passage I’ve ever undergone. Prior to graduate school, however, traveling by myself and living abroad (not in the Philippines or the US) ranked highly on my list of transformative experiences. This is a story in four parts.

The US

To my mother’s great credit, she started instilling in me very early on the notion that I should go forth into the world intrepidly. Having seen how a sheltered childhood caused my sister to fear unfamiliar places and abhor being on her own, Mom took care to show me that traveling alone was nothing to be afraid of. (more…)

About a boy

“I am what I am, and intend to be it,” for which there will be no form in the world unless Jacob makes one for himself. —Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (1922) The Waves is no doubt the most singular book on friendship in the English language, but because my copy is part of Read more…


This evening I took down a much-beloved book off the shelf after repeatedly failing to get past the first page of a depressing memoir. The well-read volume creases open onto In the Skin of a Lion, a novel I love so much that for a few years I kept an extra Read more…

Reading “Some Say the World”

In my post on “The Shawl” I show how a somewhat bibliotherapeutic approach to the story can be facilitated by following a central image through close reading. We can take a similar approach to Susan Perabo’s “Some Say the World,” which originally appeared in TriQuarterly (sometime between 1994-1996, according to various sources), but which I am reading from Frosch’s Coming of Age in the 21st Century. I’m considering teaching this story in my Critical Approaches to the ‘Family’ Program because it tells the story from the perspective of a teenager living in a broken and dysfunctional family who ends up finding a family bond with a parental figure who is not her blood relation. The protagonist is a young, heavily-medicated pyromaniac stuck at home playing Parcheesi with her stepfather while her irresponsible, self-absorbed mother carries on a regular affair with her ex-husband, the protagonist’s estranged father. Predictably, the central image in the story is fire. (more…)

Reading Yang’s American Born Chinese

Credit: Amazon

Even as it is told from the particular perspective of a Chinese-American boy, Gene Yang’s graphic novel has been lauded by readers and critics alike as a unique piece of young adult fiction that speaks to the universal teen problem of wanting to change something about yourself in order to “fit in.” I picked up the book last month with very high hopes but was left distinctly irritated by the time I got to the end of the work. I still can’t decide, however, whether and how I want to teach it.

To be sure, my discomfort with American Born Chinese is not uncommon. In an interview with Kartika Review, the author himself cites the Christian subtext of the plot as “the number two most controversial part” of the book (the first being the outrageous character Chin-Kee, who is an old Hollywood caricature come to life).

Credit: Acephalous

If we are honest with ourselves, the image is as funny as it is offensive, and I think that blogger and teacher Scott Eric Kaufman is right to warn educators that students may be very reluctant to dig into the taboo humor of the character because to do so would require confronting their own intimacy with the stereotype. But I also venture that by virtue of his exaggerations, Chin-Kee demands comment and can thus facilitate a provocative discussion on race.

What troubles me more than Chin-Kee is the racial subtext that is a bit more insidious, and which is directly related to the Christian subtext. To be clear, I don’t have a problem with the fact that there is a Christian subtext, but with how it informs the message on race/ethnicity. (more…)

Reading “The Shawl”

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of coming of age narratives—mostly from Coming of Age in the 21st Century, an anthology I would recommend to anyone interested in the topic. One story that really stands out for me is “The Shawl” by Louise Erdrich (you can download a pdf of it here). I’m definitely including it in the Dealing with Parents and the Past workshop within my Coming of Age program and I’ll probably teach it in the Critical Approaches to the ‘Family’ program that I’m developing. What really struck me about the story was how the narrator (and the reader does not immediately know that he is also the protagonist) manages to turn a traumatic family story—one that carries the tremendous weight of myth—into a narrative of heroic martyrdom. In the process, the protagonist also succeeds in redefining his relationship to his abusive, alcoholic father, who is all but destroyed by that past. (more…)