When Bay Singer gave a one-shouldered shrug on page four of The Memory Garden, I knew what I was wanted this novel to do. A one shouldered shrug is a quirk any writer might assign a fifteen-year-old, but Mary Rickert does something distinctive with it: she lets us see it through the eyes of Nan Singer, Bay's 79 year old adoptive mother:
Bay Shrugs one shoulder, a gesture Nan finds maddening, though she can't say why.
Haven't we all felt annoyance that defies narrative? And yet, how rare to read about an old woman experiencing such an emotion. With this line, Rickert showed me an old woman whose mind was worth inhabiting for its unique and surprising way of looking at the world, whose experience was not merely a repetition of tired truisms about what old people are like. I knew then that I wanted a story that would not ask either more or less from Nan than she could or would want to give. As Rickert herself observes in her "Note from the Author," "women are reduced by society's expectations for their behavior" (p. 293). We want our old women to be and do certain things—to fit into certain roles—and this story promised to show what sort of stories we can tell when we look anew at these women and who they actually are.
For the most part, this story lives up to the expectations I developed in these early pages. Regrettably, it fails for me where Rickert writes most dazzlingly about magic and beauty—not because I have anything against magic or beauty (wouldn't that be a shame?), but because at these moments the novel seemed to lapse into wanting something impossible from its women.
The novel, Rickert's first, is primarily about Bay and Nan Singer, but it is also about Nan's two girlhood friends, whom she invites to see her after years of separation. A tragedy involving their fourth friend, Eve, drove them apart all those years ago. Two other characters fill out the ensemble: a young man who has just come out to his homophobic parents, and a young woman who is writing a book about Eve.
The novel is very finely written. With its single location and limited cast of characters, it feels almost like a play. The narrative is less taut than a three-act version of the same story would be, but this looseness works in Rickert’s favor. Rickert writes of Nan:
Yes, she could have used that moment as a teaching opportunity had she not been so distracted by her relief that she lost focus. Sadly, this seems to be a theme in Nan's life, as if she's always suffered from an untreated astigmatism. (p. 4)
Given that her point of view is one of only two in the novel, it is only right that Nan's lack of focus shapes the novel. Yet Rickert deftly circles back to each thread, complicating and elaborating on seemingly minor details. In fact, in the end, we do find out why Nan finds Bay's one shouldered shrug annoying. This turn is one that, I confess, I find disappointing. I would have liked never to know why this shrug annoys Nan. I'm willing, however, to forgive this disappointment in favor of a broader admiration for Rickert's knack for returning again and again to seemingly vague or confounding observations until they are at last fully realized. A reader would do well to keep a close eye, for instance, on the recurring smell of salt.
Although the main narrative spins out languidly, Rickert has a gift for condensed, efficient story telling on a micro level:
She has no interest in spying on Wade and Shelly anyway, fumbling for buttons, zippers, and lace, tearing into each other's costumes. Instead, she stands hidden behind the dark glass, watching vandals curse at the smashed pumpkin that explodes with the water balloons she stuffed there. By the time she crawls back into bed, Bay is content with her Halloween celebration. (p. 6)
In the same breath, we learn of Bay's plan and of its effect on her as it unfolds. We are treated to an admirably compact paragraph, the form of which reflects the idea it conveys: that of a small gesture that makes the difference and turns Bay's mood neatly towards contentment.
Rickert's craft allows her to create memorable, vivid characters, to give us the sense that we are watching Bay and Nan's lives unfold, rather than merely admiring a well-wrought piece of writing with a carefully crafted narrative arc.
The story does not seem at first glance to be one that requires magic, and indeed Rickert herself apparently questioned this choice:
Why witches, I wondered. Why tell this story with witches? In many ways, this is a tale of hidden things and illusions—secrets, masks, and that oldest trick of all, hiding in plain sight. In fact, in spite of the sweet tone, this is a story about one of the greatest hiding-in-plain-sight manifestations of all—death. (p. 291)
The novel itself certainly lives up to Rickert's answer to her own question, but I think the magic in this story, unfortunately, does more than that; beyond allowing Rickert to explore secrets, misdirections, and deceptions, it allows the story more beauty than it seems it should be able to provide—or at the very least a different kind of beauty.
It is Rickert's own writing that teaches me to distrust the beauty and delicious food that flavors the novel. Rickert uses the motif of hiding in plain sight to reveal the hard labor that Nan must endure to be the "Nana" she feels she should be to Bay. Nan hides the fact that she doesn't make lavender soap, but rather buys it, afraid to disappoint Bay. Bay returns from a day out disappointed to find she has missed the soap making once again. Here, the "magic" of seemingly effortless labor really is an illusion.
And yet I do not feel that I am supposed to mistrust the beauty that gives the book its sensory appeal. It is essential to the tone of the novel, to the feel of it, to Rickert's aesthetic, and to the pleasure we are supposed to feel. A turning point in the novel occurs during the stunning Flower Feast, which Nan's friend Ruthie, gifted with kitchen magic, prepares, and about which Bay says, "It's beyond delicious, it's better than a taste. It's like eating summer, like a spoonful of summer" (p. 178). Descriptions like this one are abundant, evocative and not at all gratuitous. Rickert uses the tastes and smells and the characters' reactions to the food to tell her story. But these images make me uneasy because they leave me with the sense that the novel wants more beauty and magic than these women should be capable of giving. And isn't that in a way unfair to them? Shouldn't what they can give with their bodies and with effort we can understand be enough?
Bay, Nan, and her two surviving friends all seem to possess magic, though these are on the whole quiet, subtle powers: the ability to sense rain, in Bay's case, or to grow flowers out of season, in Nan's. The subtlety of the magic, for me, makes Rickert's use of it to give it its beauty all the more troubling, as the pleasure it brings does not seem impossible at first glance. I hesitate to compare the use of magic at certain junctures to the subtle retouching fashion editors engage in with their models—Rickert's project is far more nuanced, complex and valuable—yet that is the analogy that comes to mind.
It is Ruthie's magic that makes me the most uneasy, and Ruthie's body is the only one that seems—perhaps—not to require effort to conform to society's requirements:
"You must have lost fifty pounds at least."
"Oh you mean—" Ruthie spreads her arms out wide beside her hips.
"You were never that big."
"I got to be. I was huge. One of those women people fear, a monster."
"Oh, Ruthie, no."
Ruthie shakes her head. "You don't know what it's like. I can say this now because I'm . . . I'm—"
"Thin," Nan says. "You're quite thin."
"Well, normal size at least. I'm a bit of an expert on the way fat affects how people are treated, and I guarantee you, it wasn't pleasant." (p. 68)
Here Rickert gives us, through Ruthie, a pointed, baldly stated critique. But the novel shies away from showing us the difficulty and pain of losing weight under the circumstances Ruthie describes. Ruthie now seems to cook delicious, rich food with great pleasure, to eat without worry. Is it her magic that allows her to do so? The question remains unanswered.
Do I think the story would have been better without magic? No. Rickert's use of magic adds to the novel in numerous ways, and I would hate to lose that. It is only where the novel seems to want to be beautiful, yet not have to consider the cost of that beauty that the magic in this story does not work for me. In all, this novel promises much and delivers much. Highly recommended.
Molly Katz is a graduate student at Cornell University. She has taught courses on Shakespeare and fanfiction. She is currently working on her dissertation.