The universe responded to me clearly. I got the time at home to wear sloppy clothes and I lay around the house. And I coughed and sneezed and slept and took medicine and was too tired and sick, at first, to even watch bad movies or read.
Friends who know me well had given me some books I did not already own for Christmas. Fiction, mostly. And I had a queue of films lined up I wanted to watch. There were television shows I had recorded for later viewing. And the reading materials from work and life were stacked everywhere. The living room, the bedroom, the study, the spare bedroom, in bags, in the trunk of the car. I had planned, somewhere in the week between Christmas and New Year's, besides catching up with friends, to catch up on my literary life.
Our big family meal shifted years ago to Christmas Eve. It was easier with the little ones, and that way everyone could just flop around on Christmas Day. This year, after I traveled to Salt Lake City to open gifts there on the day, I came back home mid-afternoon with the best of intentions to visit with neighbors. A nap seemed in order first. I slept in a coma for hours. When I woke up, feeling rotten, with a house full of holiday treats, I tossed cans and boxes around the pantry until I found the desired box of Lipton noodle soup. After more digging, the bag of Manischewitz noodles emerged. I made my feel-good soup, augmented by extra egg noodles. I thought that would restore my health.
It did not.
The days that followed featured a Z pack and cough medicine with codeine. Two full days of living in my pajamas and so much sleep. I did, finally, catch up on the year's most-talked-about musical film, "Rock of Ages," and I laughed so hard I had to reach for more cough medicine. As I started to feel better, stronger, my newest novel would not be denied. I finished it last night. And in a rare case, for me anyway, I am trying to figure out when I can start reading it again. I read so fast for story, I missed the nuances of the language, and I might have missed where the plot starting tricking me.
Generally speaking, I want to keep the experience of a novel to myself. I used to be in a number of book clubs, which forced me to read a greater array of titles, but I never much enjoyed sharing the delicious part of having read the story. I didn't need people to give me reviews supported by other reviews they had read. I enjoyed the company and the treats of the gatherings, but I didn't want to discuss something/someplace I had visited that was living in my head. I liked living with my interpretation of the characters and place and plot.
But right now I'm feeling I need to find a trusted reader to share the trip I took with Ian McEwan's latest work, "Sweet Tooth." You remember him from "Atonement," which was made into the beautiful film. He is a master of intrigue and of creating layers of language that challenge the reader to follow story and listen to the music of the words.
This story takes place in London, mostly, during the Cold War in the 1970s. The protagonist is a young, sexy, well-read woman who goes to work, a bit by default, for the agency known as MI5. It was not a time when women were considered a "good risk" to be spies. But Serena Frome is the daughter of an Anglican bishop, educated at Cambridge and good at "maths." She has been seduced by an older married man who is a professor, a civic leader and in the service of his country. He persuades her to apply for a position in the Department of Health and Social Security.
One reviewer calls this a "a great big beautiful Russian doll of a novel," and I especially like that. I have several "Russian dolls" including a Santa one where one Santa reveals another and another and another, snugly fitting inside one another. I also have one I purchased in the Middle East last spring. The outer "doll" is a man with a beard in traditional garb. Inside is a series of smaller, beautiful, veiled women. I have puzzled, since I purchased it, about the layers of meaning.
And so I am pondering the meaning of all the inner dolls this novel revealed. The layers of language that seduce a lover of words. The thrill of the forbidden affairs. The pulsating music scene in the pubs of the '70s. The champagne, the oysters, the sea breezes of Brighton. And though I think I know what happened to Serena after the last page, I'm not wholly certain. And finally I will confess to you, Gentle Reader, I may not have fully grasped the meaning of the title. A reread is in order. Along with a debrief with a trusted fellow reader. And perhaps this could all take place with champagne and oysters and, if not sea breezes, blowing circles of snow on some Sunday in the Park ...
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.