Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: The World of Rae English by Lucy Rosenthal

We are not only the person that our life and experiences have made but we are also a construct of ourselves, donning the garb that we want the world to view us as. Rarely are we uncovered and exposed in our true selves. We create a façade, a persona, which we are comfortable allowing people to assume is the real us. But we hide behind this façade, holding so much close, hidden, and not sharing it with anyone. In Lucy Rosenthal's novel The World of Rae English, readers can peel back a layer or two on the main character as the pages turn but she ultimately still remains crouched behind more layers, perhaps hidden even to herself.

Rae English wants to tell her story, to unveil who she is. She is the ex-wife of a once rising politician who went to prison for mail fraud. She's fled New York for university life in Iowa City, a newly minted student trying to write a novel. She's the daughter of secretive parents, a remote father who died young and a preoccupied mother.  She's the the former friend of an unsuitable, callous girl who haunts her even into adulthood. In Iowa City, she can remake herself, suppress the information of her ex-husband's existence and everything else in her past, and just be the loving girlfriend of the rather bland atheist religion professor. She can look for love and try to break her attraction to liars and to those who hold their secrets possessively to their chests. She can feign openness as she ignores her own issues of abandonment. But she, like Persephone, after whom she has named her buried novel, will spend half of her time in the open and half crouched in a hell of her own devising, wanting what she has lost.

Telling the story of Rae's life and the abandonment she endured from a young age, from the defection of her best friend to her father's death and her husband's sudden arrest, the novel jumps back and forth in time examining Rae's character. Most of the story is set in Iowa City and centers on her relationship with Ted, the atheist religion professor. Rae cleaves to him, adopting his own back story and failed marriage but without sharing her own. But it is still a betrayal of the worst sort when, like all the others before him, he too leaves her.  Her downward spiral continues apace as she grasps at something she herself may not even understand. In the end, it is only through a hard learned letting go, in practice and in fact, that both she and the reader are able to understand a little bit more about the world of Rae English.   This is ultimately a confounding book: an unknowable main character narrating the story and a plot riddled with omissions never quite addressed, much as Rae herself is presented.  She's a stand-offish character and is incapable of seeing the people around her completely as well, making it hard for the reader to see them either.  And while the plot itself is pretty straightforward and the writing is probably admirable, I find myself still uncertain about the book as a whole, wondering what I missed.

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful review! I especially like the first paragraph.


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