Books, Charles Williams, death, grief, magic realism, Mary Tweedy, Robert Hugh Benson, souls, stranger, supernatural fiction, supernature, writers
The best way I can recommend Mary Tweedy’s novel JANE AND YOU is to say that it gave me the gift of tears. At the novel’s climax, I found myself crying tears of joy. These took me to a place different from the familiar emotional catharsis I get from reading. Tears are a way the body releases the tension triggered by a strong emotional experience. In the Catholic world, St. Ignatius of Loyola spoke of “the gift of tears” as a grace that comes from an overwhelming experience of the reality of God’s presence or love. Abraham Maslow spoke of “peak experiences.” Both describe my reaction during the reading of the final chapters of this book.
So yes. JANE AND YOU made me weep with joy. It was unexpected, and so very, very welcome. I cannot guarantee that you too will experience God in such a way, reading this novel, but you might. A Catholic reader can ask nothing greater from a work of fiction.
I am an incorrigible bookworm, but I have an handicap when it comes to fiction. I am almost exclusively a genre reader. I find it hard to “get into” a novel that has no “hook,” i.e., one that depicts ordinary life. I want mystery, murder, horror, the uncanny, or something/someone out of the ordinary before I will enter fully into a novel. I don’t know why. I used to apologize for it, but what’s the point in apologizing for what I want? So many books, so little time… why shouldn’t I indulge my appetite for the weird in what I read?
JANE AND YOU fits the bill, categorizing itself as a novel of magic realism. As I understand it, magic realism differs from fantasy in being rooted in real observed life rather than in a universe where magic or fantasy is codified in any kind of rules or formal structure. I would have characterized JANE AND YOU as supernatural fiction myself, in the vein of Charles Williams or Robert Hugh Benson. I love this type of fiction. I am a Catholic, and in my universe all of nature exists in tandem with supernature. Realism does not preclude the uncanny. But the supernatural also is not something that is ostentatious. A good novel, mainstream or genre, will immerse me in a world where matters of soul are the only battles that really matter. This is one such novel. But it’s not a ponderous take on the soul. It’s a lot of fun.
JANE AND YOU opens at a Catholic funeral. Jane, a woman in her fifties or sixties, has suffered the death of her husband John, who died suddenly of a heart attack. This is not Jane’s first loss. Jane and John had earlier suffered the death of their only child, their son Gerry, in a skateboard accident. When Jane loses John, she not only loses her life companion, but also the one person in the world who loved and cared about Gerry in a way that matched her own intensity of emotion and experience. She has now lost everyone in the world who meant the most to her.
On her way back from her husband’s funeral, Jane spies a strange youngish looking man sitting on a bench. His presence is not out of the ordinary, and yet his actions arrest her. He is filing his nails with studied attention. “The man having apparently examined his work proceeded to curl the digits and began calmly and delicately to rub the emery board back and forth over the offending nail. Jane looked away feeling as though she had inadvertently caught someone in the bath.” She sees him again a few mornings later when she goes running in the park. For some reason his presence throws her off guard and causes her to end her walk abruptly. The next morning, he is out there again. Is he stalking her? What does he want?
Yes, he does want something. No, it isn’t her body. JANE AND YOU is a novel about souls.
Mary Tweedy has done a righteous thing for a reader like myself, one who avoids non-genre fiction and is drawn instead to the eerie. She has framed a close observation of how death flattens out life and renders it colorless–a topic I would normally shrink from–within a page-turner about one woman’s encounter with a mysterious, possibly unearthly being–a topic to which I am naturally drawn. This is a clever way to rope in a reader who wouldn’t be drawn to a novel about a woman’s journey towards “the new normal” after her husband’s death. But the stranger is not just a MacGuffin–not just a plot device that the protagonist pursues having no importance to the narrative. Eventually, as is the case with every character in the book, he becomes in himself a catalyst for Jane’s education in comprehending the intricacies of her own Catholic faith and its relevance to the overwhelming mysteries of life and death, good and evil.
Can I remind you again that this is not a heavy read, but a lot of fun? I don’t want to spoil the book, so I won’t say too much more about the plot. It unfolds in a series of very well done set pieces. Each involves Jane with people known and unknown, all of whom she comes to recognize as souls fighting their own battles and demons with varying levels of success and failure. We get to experience different social settings: a swanky nursing facility for well-off seniors; a frenetic Los Angeles dance club for the younger crowd; a volatile meeting with members of a grief support group; a cocktail party hosted by a successful composer.
Tweedy is an assured writer, even though this is only her second novel. There were no instances in which I felt like the author intruded on her characters. Published on smashwords.com, the text is perfectly edited with none of the typos and grammatical lapses that can be found in some digitally published books.
Most of all, this is a page-turner. I literally stopped all of my work for two days while I read this book. I couldn’t figure out how the author would successfully resolve the conflict between the protagonist and the mysterious stranger. She set him up as such an intriguing character that I didn’t see what kind of reveal would be good enough to satisfy our curiosity as to what he was and where he came from. The resolution was everything I could have hoped for, and more. The author side-stepped the solutions that would have been obvious (and hence a let-down), and instead went for the spiritual jugular. And I found myself in tears, grateful that someone had so exquisitely turned the screw in a direction at once unexpected and transcendentally satisfactory.
You can get JANE AND YOU here.