Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name

Disclaimer: The publishers provided this book for review via NetGalley.

It wasn’t until about halfway through Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, a novelized account of the years surrounding his wife’s sudden death, that I began to think he had achieved something with his book. Up to that point, I’d been occasionally struck by the almost wrenching sorrow he conveyed with simple descriptions (like when he sees the marks of Aura’s fingers in a tub of face wash) but otherwise uninterested in hearing more of this sorrow. Creating an altar to Aura, hanging Aura’s wedding dress over a mirror in his room, reading Aura’s diaries and fragments of stories, wearing Aura’s old scarf, recoloring all his memories in relation to Aura’s death – Say Her Name is sometimes exhausting to read, even when Goldman captures something essential about the process of mourning.

At the halfway point, though, something changed. My frustration with the depths of Goldman’s mourning, with the almost hagiographic portrayal of his wife Aura, collapsed, oddly enough, when Goldman stepped outside the image of the “properly mourning husband” I had crafted. About a year after Aura’s death Goldman embarks on a couple short-lived relationships with women who are, like Aura, significantly younger than he is. About a page after thinking, “Francisco, please, keep it in your pants, I liked it better when you were just reading Aura’s journals and being sad and writing about Aura’s childhood and her mixed feelings on academia” I thought: I’ve been caught up in this and his mourning and the story of what I want that mourning to look like.

Goldman draws the reader into his mourning, but through the early portions of this novel I also felt outside of that mourning – after all, how can I, someone who’s never experienced a loss as large as Goldman’s, understand what his experience of this loss means? I reacted to his sorrow the same way so many peripheral characters in this novel (novelized memoir?) do; first by wanting it to go away, to be less than it is, to be something manageable; and then, when Goldman moves through the stages, is still mourning Aura but not in the same ways he did for the first year, by wanting him to return to some “purer” expression of his loss.

If that makes sense to anyone but me, then, the best thing about this book is how completely I was exasperated and frustrated by Goldman’s grief. He was about twenty years older than Aura when they met, spent only four years with her (two of those as a married couple), she was just thirty when she died. His loss, then, is not just for Aura and the life they had together, but for everything it was going to be: for Aura’s future as a writer, for the years and aging they didn’t have, for the child they had planned to have but never did. Without ever stating things so bluntly as that, Goldman manages to express those losses in this book, which is itself a part of his mourning, and creates Aura so fully that when I had to read the scene of Aura’s death and the days and months leading up to it near book’s end, I could barely continue reading. The time Goldman devotes to seemingly peripheral details, like the other beaches they might have gone to on their vacation, rather than the beach where Aura died – the structure of waves – the comparative safety of the beach they went to the day Aura broke her neck while bodysurfing – underscore the sorrow of her death, a thing that should not have happened given the statistics, but did anyway.

Say Her Name is classified as fiction, which is one of the things that held me outside of the text for the first half of the book. From what I gather Goldman created some composite characters, but as I read I couldn’t stop wondering what else he had changed or shifted, where the “fiction” comes into a book that’s clearly been written as a memoir. By end this had become a minor concern, though it’s something I continue to wonder about.

Throughout the book Goldman quotes from Aura’s childhood diaries and stories. For much of my read I felt these things detracted from the story Goldman was telling. Goldman tells us that Aura is a skilled writer, but the excerpts he quotes mostly show that she was a twenty-something writer reimagining events from her life as short stories. Not a bad writer, not a great one, simply someone who reads like the age she was when she wrote the stories. By the time I reached the end of Say Her Name, though, I wondered if this wasn’t what Goldman was trying to express with all these writings of Aura’s: what she could have been if she had lived, because as the book progresses the improvements in her writing are evident even to those of us who have only these few glimpses of it.

It took me a while to settle into this book, but once I was in I was in, a little stunned at how Goldman had gotten me to react to his story of Aura’s life and death and his mourning before I even thought I cared about that story. Say Her Name is a book heavy with the weight of all those parts of Aura’s life not yet lived, and it’s a book that should be read.

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Read-a-Thon! Read-a-Thon!

Ever since I first heard about Dewey’s Read-a-Thon I’ve mostly expressed confusion over what the point is. Although I had a proud read-a-thon run as a child (two-time winner of my elementary school’s read-a-thon) I am not all that into aggressive or speed reading or whatever you want to call it. But today I made bombitsa (you know, little snow bombs) with my host sister, and then I ate way too many of them, and now my stomach hurts and I can’t even think about getting off my sofa, and the best way to salvage this day seems to be devoting myself to knocking some books off my reading list, top among them the first novel in Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War.

So, without further ado, here are the books I plan to tackle today, though I’ll probably get distracted and end up turning this into a Gilmore Girls marathon or something.

Olivia Manning – The Great Fortune
Francisco Goldman – Say Her Name
Elizabeth George – Missing Joseph
Bruce Coville – Jennifer Murdley’s Toad

I’ll edit this post as I go along, like to update you that my stomach feels better and I’m outside playing jump rope with my sister, or that I fell asleep during the Manning (it’s pretty good, actually, but usually I have to read it not while laying down) or that I still can’t figure out when the mystery is going to get going in the Elizabeth George.

Pages Read: 404

Update: 7:19PM – Ahh. As a couple have suggested in the comments, reading does do wonders for the stomach struggling under the weight of too many cookies. Green tea & Olivia Manning, Yaki being the most frustrating character ever (also, Manning must be the best at writing cruel & unlikeable characters ever – I’m not sure there’s a single person in the book I really care for), my host siblings playing football outside, sun going down, call to prayer.

Update: 9:09PM Fortunes of War carries on. 25 pages in two hours. Bah! There is such a weird disconnect between the lives of the ex-pats Manning writes about, and the war that’s gathering all around them. Her characters so often seem like children wanting entertainment, without another thought in their heads. I think I’m going to finish reading Howl’s Moving Castle now.

Update: 11:58PM: Howl’s Moving Castle is so funny and weird. I’d forgotten it was made into a movie – I need to watch that after I finish reading. I just finished The Great Fortune, the first volume in Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy, which is itself just half of her Fortunes of War. Pushing myself to read through this (more than half of the book since this afternoon) seems to have done something good for me and the reading, getting me over the natural inertia of facing a long, long book with characters who I halfway hate from their first appearances. It’s nice to remember that feeling, too, of reading like I did when I was a kid, getting all hyped up to finish a book so that I would never go to sleep on time but instead would lay under the covers with a reading light, not going to sleep until I’d finished whatever Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys Super Mystery I was on at the moment. Somehow it wound up being midnight but I thought it was about 10PM. Also, my copy of The Balkan Trilogy is getting that sort of nice floppy spine thing going on that announces to the world, I’ve Been Read. Also, I really like the smell of nyrb classics. They remind me of some books I read when I was younger, but I’ll have to come back later when I remember what the series or publisher was.

7:35AM – It looks like it’s going to be the nicest day ever out. Howl’s Moving Castle is still fun but kind of grating when it’s the only thing I’m reading. Last night I felt so inspired by my great time finishing up the Olivia Manning that I felt ready to declare myself a convert to the “one book at a time” thing. Not going to happen.

8:34AM – Second cup of coffee on the way. If there is one good thing about this read-a-thon thing it’s that it pushed me to wake up early today – good preparation for work tomorrow morning. Lynley & Havers finally showed up in Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph, after over one hundred pages without them. Huge relief but something – being tired or reading too much or things that I’ve been kind of weird about, in relation to this series, but never let myself think about too much before now – has me noticing all the ways in which George has made Havers a sort of half-person. Like, every time Havers is described there is no question that she’s got “chunky” legs or wears frumpy clothes or that, despite only being 33 years old, she is never ever going to have a romantic partner. This is so weird and kind of disturbing – is this what women have to look like when they have successful careers? The day looks even more gorgeous – I am expecting my six-year-old host sister to be pounding on my door within an hour telling me to come out and play, and odds are I’ll take her up on the offer…assuming I haven’t fallen asleep by then.

12:53PM – Okay, I have to be honest: my enthusiasm has faded. I’m glad this read-a-thon got me through the first volume of The Balkan Trilogy, but now I am just tired and, bah, read-a-thons! Still, you know: I am finally moving on that trilogy, which I’ve been “reading” for months now, and that’s worth something.

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