The other night I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t muster the energy to supply my own punctuation for The Road, so I picked up another book that’s been lying around on my bedside table for about six months. I have no idea where it came from, possibly my mother? I dunno. Doesn’t matter.
I read half of it that night and the rest yesterday. The book is Goodbye Without Leaving by Laurie Colwin, and when I first started, I was not optimistic that I’d get too far before abandoning it. The book begins by describing the protagonist, Geraldine Coleshares, as she ditches her dissertation work to fulfill her life long dream of becoming a backup singer for a rhythm and blues band. Her decision mortifies her parents, as it conflicts so fundamentally with the way she’d been raised and everyone’s expectations for her.
from Chapter 1
“During my career as a backup singer with Vernon and Ruby Shakely and the Shakettes, it often occurred to me that this was not a lifetime occupation and that someday I would have to figure out my rightful place in society.
I did not want to think about these things: I wanted to get out on stage and dance. The Shakelys thought it was cool to hire a white Shakette every once in a while, and for a while I was it. Previous to that I had been a graduate student, sitting in the library at the University of Chicago getting older and older, trying to think of a topic for my doctoral dissertation and, once having found the topic, trying to write about it, I was an English major and I intended to write something that would turn into a book entitled Jane Austen and the War of the Sexes. Another thing I did not like to think about in front of the mirror. At the drop of a hat I could have stood in for a Chiffon, Shirelle, or Marvelette, and I could do a fine imitation of Brenda and the Tabulations.
It is painful to think about those days. It is like yearning for a lover you will never see again and to whom you never got to say goodbye.”
The novel follows Geraldine through her stint as a Shakette through marriage, job searches, childbirth, and friendships. Her inner voice is entirely authentic, at least it was for me, in a way that I haven’t found other first person narratives to be very often. I didn’t feel like I was reading, but instead I felt like I was listening in on someone’s thoughts. The details of Geraldine’s life and mine are vastly different, but in her constant journey to find who she is meant to be, as she puts it, I felt like I was reading my own diary.
Colwin, who died suddenly at age 48, does not write flowery prose, thank goodness, and her writing is not self-conscious; I never felt like my attention was being pulled towards the writing rather than the story. Because Geraldine herself is hard-edged and spare sometimes, this felt appropriate. Colwin creates complicated female characters in Goodbye Without Leaving who embody the conflicts so many women feel about their splintered lives and the many roles they play in them. Her male characters are much more straightforward, but are also much more likable. While the females demand answers to uncomfortable questions and challenge the dominant paradigm, the males soothe and reassure and explain. I suppose someone could do an anti-feminist critical riff on this, but I found the quietly strong men in Geraldine’s life to be supportive and loving rather than patronizing. As I type that, I realize that while I am sometimes hard-edged and challenging, I am also lucky enough to have strong men who support me and reassure me and provide me with much needed perspective from time to time. I’m thinking here of my husband and my brother, so before anyone goes off all half-cocked wondering about these “men” in my life, take a pill. I’m not that challenging.
I am finding it hard to say why it is I liked this book so much, possibly because some of it cut so close that to “go there” would be going somewhere that is too personal. I’m still sorting it out. I can say that a sure sign Goodbye Without Leaving is a worthy read is that I am confident that I will be sorting it out for some time to come.