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Jean Thompson’s growing novel is a keeper: NPR

Jean Thompson’s growing novel is a keeper: NPR

The Poet's House, by Jean Thompson

There are books that I review and love, and I look forward to putting them in the hands of friends who I think will love them too. Then there is a subgroup of books I love that will never leave this house, because I want them nearby – to dive in, read again and feel comforted by.

That sounds sentimental, I know. The Poet’s House, by Jean Thompson, is the latest addition to the subgroup of books that remain. It is a carefully observed, dull, growing story of an insecure young woman who is drawn into a sparkling clique of poets; it is also a wise story about the corrosive power of shame and the primary fear of appearing stupid, unsophisticated and sentimental.

Thompson’s heroine is a 21-year-old woman named Carla Sawyer. Carla has taken some courses at her local middle school in Northern California, but, as she says, she has “one of those brains that does not process words on a page very well,” so she works for a landscape architect. “It was not my dream job,” she tells us, “even though I could not have said what it was.”

Carla’s mother and her boyfriend both think she’s not selling much. Carla does, sort of:

[F]rooms from time to time [she says] I was overwhelmed by a sadness or alienation, a feeling of too much feeling, if it makes sense, of standing just outside something desirable and urgent and important. And then I had to grab …

One day, Carla is assigned to clean up the property of a sprawling house on the edge of a canyon. It belongs to a «Mrs. Boone »who is actually a famous, older poet called« Viridian ». Here is Carla’s first glimpse of Viridian:

She had long gray-and-silver hair brushed straight back from her forehead and stood out like a lion’s mane. She was barefoot. She was wearing loose white linen trousers and a blue knee-length top with wide, hanging sleeves. I saw older women wearing clothes like these in Marin, equally sharing yoga practice and Star Wars costumes.

Of course, Viridian is charismatic – even more so because, as Carla notes, “she protected herself from any slight intimacy.” After losing her job as a landscape architect, Carla starts showing up at Viridian’s late in the afternoon to clean the flower beds, for free, and to sit with her and the other poets and writers who drop by. “I did not do that. talk a lot, just listened [Carla says], sucks up everything. … I wanted the clothes they wore, the lives they had lived. I guess you could say I was in love with poetry. ”

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Viridian reads her poems aloud, one-on-one to Carla, who then “gets” poetry for the first time. As she hesitantly ventures deeper into Viridian’s world – for example, working part-time for a prestigious poetry magazine – Carla walks away from her boyfriend and he angrily suggests that she’s just a passing “project” for Viridian and her friends.

Thompson is such a nuanced writer that she avoids “either / or” categories. Like most people, the larger than life Viridian is many things at once: a prima donna, for sure, and a bit of a manipulator, but also a sincere mentor. Writing through Carla’s perspective gives the awake Thompson an opportunity to find the micro-aggressions and misunderstandings in the social class that reappear again and again in conversations with Viridian’s coterie, which literally speaks another language. For example, when the editor of that poetry magazine first approaches Carla to work there, he says:

“I wonder if you will join when we put together the next issue of the magazine.”

I was not sure what he meant [Carla tells us]. “Be on hand?”

“Help. Call. Keep track of author questions. Pick up your lunch order.”

It will take a few more rounds with this elegant stumbling mumble before Carla understands that this job is unpaid.

The action to The poet’s house climax at an external writers’ conference – always excellent food for satire – and is about a hidden cache of valuable poems that Viridian has inherited from a former famous lover. Viridian refuses to publish them, and Carla has to outmaneuver the various factions that will use her to pressure Viridian. As absorbing as the plot is, it is Thompson’s charged portrayal of Carla’s unfocused longing to be more that drives this story and makes it so emotionally resonant. The Poet’s House, as I said, is a keeper.

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