Special Guest Stars I’ve Seen Since I Started Watching Murder, She Wrote Twice a Day
Archival Essay: A Bad Day for Fat
Regular readers may know that I recently quit my job. Before I left, I raided the company servers for some of my vintage work, work that no longer survives on the web. Today, I’m resurrecting the essay that gave me my first taste of internet celebrity, “A Bad Day for Fat”. My reflections on the death of one big gal and the gastric bypass surgery of another earned me a lot of hate mail from fat peopleall of whom assumed that I must be skinny, which has never been the caseincluding a response from Carnie Wilson.
Five years have passed since I wrote this, so, obviously, some of it is a bit out of date. We know, for example, that Wilson did lose weight after getting her stomach stapledindeed, we saw the results in graphic detail in Playboyand some of my views on the relationship between weight and health have changed. This remains, nevertheless, a decent little essay, if I do say so myself.
August 10, 1999, was a bad day for fat. TV cook and hell-raiser Jennifer Paterson died of lung cancer, and sometime celebrity Carnie Wilson got her stomach stapled.
As one of the Two Fat Ladies, Jennifer Paterson was a televangelist for the high life, roaring around the English countryside on her Triumph and taking over unsuspecting kitchens with treacle tarts, streaky bacon, and deviled kidneys. In an era of body-guilt and low-fat extremism, she and her partner, Clarissa Dickson Wright, put the joy back in eating. Their unapologetic love of lavish food and their no-nonsense style earned the pair legions of fans all over the world. Even as she lay dying, Paterson provided a radiant example of life fully livedshe turned her hospital room into a salon full of friends, and instructed visitors to bring tins of caviar instead of flowers. Nor did her death provide the fat-phobic an object lesson on the evils of hearty consumption. She lived to the respectable age of 71, and it was the two packs of Woodbines a day that killed her, not the heavy cream, whiskey, or well-marbled meats.
While the world is poorer for the loss of this bon vivant, the very richness of Paterson’s life is a consolation. The sadder story is Carnie Wilson’s. You may remember her as a member of Wilson Phillips, or from her short-lived talk show. However you remember her, you no doubt remember her as fat. This is, of course, the reason for Wilson’s radical weight loss plannot the fat itself, but the way it defines her public image and her sense of self. While there was no way for Wilson to hide her weightnot that the directors of Wilson Phillips’ videos didn’t tryshe has consciously chosen to publicize her gastric bypass. From her initial reflections and consultation with doctors to the surgery itself, the whole process was covered live on the Web. The very existence of adoctorinyourhouse.com [now spotlighthealth.com], the host site, raises a number of questions about our culture, about our increasingly grotesque voyeurism and our celebrity fetish, but Carnie Wilson’s obese odyssey also offers valuable insight into the way we demonize fat.
Watching the archived footage of Wilson’s webcast, Weighing the Alternatives (pun presumably intended), is purposefully painful. The video opens with Stephanie Powers (Hart to Hart) walking down a hospital corridor, acquainting the viewer with the many horrors of adiposity. She applauds Wilson for her decision to “open up her heart and let us in on the pain and suffering of an obese person in this weight-obsessed culture.” Powers lets us know that “there’s a stigma attached to being overweight that contributes to feelings of isolation and despair.” Finally, she presents Wilson as a victim of corpulence: “Throughout her life, Carnie has been plagued by obesity. And, even though today she’s in good physical health, her doctors’ prognosis for her future health is grim.”
Power’s soliloquy introduces the two greatest strengths of the weight loss industrysocial pressure to be thin and the perceived health threat of obesity. While Powers does make mention of our “weight-obsessed culture,” subsequent critique of that culture is slight. In a rather bizarre guest appearance Margaret Cho describes the abhorrence of fat in Hollywood, and she and Wilson agree that society is hurtful to the heavy. This brief moment of social criticism, though, is crushed by the ensuing infommercial for thinness. Throughout the video, Wilson, her doctors and her family accept fat phobia and celebrate the gastric bypass as Wilson’s last chance for a normal, happy life.
Through laughter and tears, Wilson describes her struggles with fat and her lifelong wish to, as she puts it, “look good.” She recounts the taunts and the insults. She describes her feelings of failure and weakness. Family and friends, including her parents and siblings, tell her how happy they are that she has made this decision, how her choice to have her stomach reduced to a thumb-size pouch has filled them with happiness and pride. Brian Wilson suggests that his daughter’s surgery will be “an inspiration to her. It’s going to change her life. She’ll be happy again. She’ll be able to, you know, go out there and make records, and go on stage, and be proud.” How her current weight is preventing her from doing any of these things is left unsaid.
Of course, a doctor occasionally chimes in to list the health benefits Wilson will enjoy after the gastric bypass, lest we think that her skinny desire is superficial. The striking feature of this new wellness, though, is its hypothetical nature. Over and over, we are told that Wilson is in great health, that there is nothing wrong with her physically. Rather than make her more healthy now, the gastric bypass may protect her from medical ills that may arise in the future.
This argument is a popular one with the weight loss industry. Fat hatred is not just a weakness of the shallow and image conscious; it is, rather, an irrefutable, scientifically supportable, medical position. The problem with this argument, though, is that the scientific underpinnings of fat phobia are not irrefutable. A growing body of research suggests that it is possible to be fit and fat, that the two are not mutually exclusive. For instance, the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research has found that how much a person exercises has more impact on longevity than how much a person weighs. In their study, men who were thin but unfit had three times the rate of early death as men who were fat but fit. Wilson’s excellent bill of health would seem to lend support to this idea, and it also presents an interesting contrast to the health risks she will face after the gastric bypass. In addition to the usual dangers of major surgery, Wilson will face a lifetime of nutritional deficiencies, as well as intolerance to red meat, sugar and milk. She may suffer from persistent nausea and vomiting, constipation and ulcers. Fluid from her gastrointestinal tract may leak into the abdomen, causing serious infection. Ten to twenty percent of patients who have this surgery will require follow-up surgery. And there is the slight chance that she will not lose any weight at all.
In any case, the health risks of obesity are largely beside the point. From listening to Wilson talk, reading the comments on her obesity support group bulletin board, and absorbing the messages of weight loss ads and articles, it’s clear that fat phobia and the resulting self-hatred among fat people is primarily a social phenomenon, not a medical one. The desire on display is to be beautiful, not to be well. And, in her attempt to achieve self-love through self-mutilation, Carnie Wilson has consciously designated herself a role model for fat people everywherehence the very public nature of her surgery.
The saddest aspect of this story is that Wilson already was a role model. Before she became a cringing victim, she presented herself as a self-assured, stylish woman at home in her own body. Big beautiful women looked to her for confidence and support in their battle for self-love. In a 1996 interview with Radiance: The Magazine for the Large Woman Wilson said:
I’m fat. I’m a big girl. It’s my feelings about myself that I think about. I feel attractive, I present myself well . That image has been good for heavy people. I’m proud of that. I feel like a spokesperson for heavier women. I feel like I’m saying, You can have anything you want, you can be or do anything you want. You can be successful, whatever your size.
On August 10, the fat movement lost two of its champions, one to lung cancer, the other to self-loathing. While I never thought much about her before now, I am sad for Carnie Wilson and for everyone who looks to her as a role model. It fills me with dread to know that medically sanctioned starvation and malnutrition has become a viable alternative to fat. While I also mourn the passing of Miss Paterson, I am gladdened by her fearless example and the knowledge that her spirit will live forever in reruns, cookbooks, and rich cream sauces.
Tuesday Recipe: Dream Pie
My mom used to make a dessert called Pudding Pie. It was pretty much what it sounds like: a pie shell filled with pudding. In my earliest recollections, she made a pastry crust and filled it with chocolate JELL-O® pudding, the kind you have to cook. At some point she discovered the pre-made graham-cracker crust in the baking aisle, and that became the foundation for Pudding Pie. Then, one momentous day in the ’80s, she was cruising towards the JELL-O® display when the words “Dream Pie”, emblazoned on a Dream Whip® box, captured her attention. Since then, Dream Pie has been one of her signature desserts for picnics and potlucks. Personally, I prefer her lemon meringueshe makes that from scratch, and it’s amazingbut everybody loves the Dream Pie.
Ted’s department had a barbecue recently, and our contribution was a couple of chocolate Dream Pies. This dessert is not suitable for everyday consumptionthe main ingredient in Dream Whip® is partially hydrogenated oilbut it’s an absurdly easy dessert and a total crowd-pleaser. The recipe’s on the back of every package of Dream Whip®, but I’m reproducing it here with my family’s preferred crust.
2 envelopes Dream Whip® Whipped Topping Mix
2¾ cups cold milk, divided
1 tsp. vanilla
2 pkg. (4-serving size each) JELL-O® Instant Pudding & Pie Filling, any flavor
1 pre-made Oreo® chocolate cookie crust
Beat whipped topping mix, 1 cup of the milk and vanilla in large bowl with electric mixer on high speed 6 minutes or until topping thickens and forms soft peaks.
Add remaining 1¾ cups milk and dry pudding mixes. Beat on low speed until well blended. Beat on high speed 2 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Spoon into pastry shell.
Refrigerate at least 4 hours. Garnish as desired. Store leftover pie in refrigerator.
NOTE: This recipe makes one very, very generous pie. You should be able to stretch the filling to two pie shells if you’ll be satisfied with a less lavish dessert.
Make Your Own Poncho, Please
It’s only been autumn for a couple of days now, but there’s one fall fashion trend that I’m already sick of: the poncho. I have nothing against the garment itself; I’m just tired of seeing the giant doily that seems to be its most popular iteration.
I’m aware that not everyone who wants a poncho can afford the gorgeously crafted version, spun from the finest cashmere. I know that, when one can’t have Prada, sometimes Zara will doindeed, sometimes even H&M will doand I suppose that if one has no plans to wear a trendy item beyond the season at hand, there’s little point in spending a lot on that item. It’s just that a crappy poncho looks so very, well, crappy.
In a perfect world, all clothes would be well-constructed, perfectly fitted, and made from beautiful fabric. Most of the time, we have to settle for one or two of these attributes. The poncho, though, is basically nothing but a piece of fabric, so, when it’s made from bad fabricacrylic yarn, for exampleit’s just bad. And because the poncho is so simple, it’s really, really easy to make one that doesn’t look like shit. If you have basic knitting skills, or can sew a straight seam, you can have a lovely poncho you’ll be delighted to wear this fall and beyond.
The poncho is pretty much the easiest knitting project there is. It’s really not much more complex than a scarfjust biggerand if you knit in the round, it’s actually easier. There’s an absurdly simple poncho pattern in The Knit Stitch, a great book for beginners. I’m working on this poncho right now myself. Basically, it’s just a big tube. I’m using a wonderful hand-painted yarn, variegated shades of sage and turquoise and soft brown in a merino blend.
For the more advanced knitters, there are snazzy poncho patterns in Debbie Stoller’s awesome Stitch ’N Bitch and Big Just Got Bigger by Rowanthe latter is an especially good resource because it contains projects designed especially for big, fat yarns, so they knit up fast. The web is also a great source for poncho patterns. A Google search immediately turned up this saucy little number at Yarn Harlot. The redoubtable Knitty.com offers a couple of new poncho patterns, too.
The world is full of scrumptious yarn, yarn spun from luscious fibers dyed elegant and exciting colors. If you’re not blessed with a great local store, there are virtual shops aplenty. I’m fond of Yarn Market.
But you don’t have to knit to have a poncho. If you can cut out a couple of rectangles and stitch them together, you can have a poncho in minutes. As with the knitted poncho, the key is fine materials. Even the most rudimentary fabric store should have some nice drapey woollens and elegant knits, and, since a poncho should only require a couple of yards of fabric, you can splurge a little. If you really don’t find anything you like at your local Jo-Ann, look online at stores like Fashion Fabrics Club. If you feel like you could use a little guidance, there are poncho patterns for sewers, too. This McCall’s pattern has ponchos and capelets attainable by even the least experienced seamstress.
Wednesday Morning Shoe Report
It was at the book launch party for a friend of mine. The party took place at the office space of another friend, a sweet loft in Soho. The latter friend had just launched an internet business; he and his partners were hoping to sell short films online. Ah, remember the early-00s? Those were innocent times.
Anyway, I was there early, helping to get everything set up. At one point, a skinny blonde girlI think she was the girlfriend of one of my friend’s business partnersarrived. We were introduced, but she barely looked at me, and I am quite certain that my name went in one ear and out the other.
Later, after all the crudités had been arranged, I switched out of my comfy sneakers and into these heels. Then, the party commenced. I was chatting with some guyI can’t remember whowhen the skinny blonde girl approached. She wanted to talk to this guy, too, and she was quite prepared to ignore me again when she happened to notice my footwear. “Nice shoes,” she said, and then she looked at meactually looked at mewith new-found respect.
So, yeah, she was kind of a bitch, but at least she recognizes really good shoes when she sees them.
Britney Spears Totally Copied Me
I don’t know how that skank found out. I mean, we worked so hard to keep the paparazzi away from the wedding. Whatever. All I know is: Britney Spears totally copied me.
When Ted and I got married in June, we wanted to make sure that everything was extraspecial and superfun. So, as soon as we left the courthouse, we changed out of our fancy clothes and into matching white tracksuits before we went out to party. Sound familiar? Let me remind you: We did this in June; Britney did it last weekend. I guess Bobby Brown isn’t the only one she’s covering these days.
True, our tracksuits weren’t exactly the same. Ted’s didn’t say “The Pimp” on the back; it said “Professor Pimp”. And mine said “Mrs. Dr. Edward W. Clayton II”, instead of, like, ”Mrs. Federline”. But, still
She also stole our idea of having a cash bar. Here’s something I bet she didn’t think of, though: Ted and I stocked the bar with liquor we bought ourselves, wholesale, and we charged $4 a drink. We totally turned a profit on the reception.
God. Britney Spears is such a stupid copying skank.
Interview: Emma Donoghue, Part Two
If I had any talent for writing fiction, I would want to write like Emma Donoghue writes.
No story, I suppose, is pure invention. All stories are informed by the author’s experienceby her knowledge and beliefs and idiosyncracies. All stories, no matter how fanciful, begin in the real world; and all fictionall good fictioncontains resonant, recognizable truths. Maybe I admire Donoghue so much because I can almost imagine myself doing what she does: taking a myth and turning it into something it wasn’t before, or taking a morsel of history and spinning it into something much more alive than bare facts. The work of reworkingrenewal, restoration, rehabilitationappeals to me. It’s what I would want to do, I think, if I could tell stories.
But I am not a writer of fiction. I admit that some of my favorite anecdotes have been burnished to a bright and artful sheen in retelling, but that is only because I believe the little stories of my life become more truly true as they become more entertaining. This is to say that when I declare I have no talent for fiction, that doesn’t mean that I have any particular allegiance to what philistines call truth; it’s just to say that I have no talent for spinning large stories, or telling tales that are not about myself.
So, I read these stories and I am transported. I think about them, and sometimes I write about them, and, on rare occasions, I get to talk to the people who create them. I loved talking to Emma Donoghue. She is a bubbling font of intelligent enthusiasm. The first part of our recent conversation about her glorious new book, Life Mask, was published by Borders. This, the second part, is where we discuss prostitution as the archetypal shit job, the delicate transactions of historical fiction, and the past as “a broader, more ambiguous world.”
Where did you find this story?
Emma Donoghue: Oh, I’ve been interested in Mrs. Damer for so long. I think it began way back when I was writing a book of lesbian history called Passions Between WomenMrs. Damer came up as pretty much the only woman in the 18th century who was repeatedly named as a Sapphist Mrs. Damer is unique in that way. You find a couple of other women who were maybe named in one place as a Sapphist, but the rumors just clung to Mrs. Damereven though it doesn’t seem to me that her behavior with women in public was particularly gushy compared to someone like the duchess of Devonshire, for example.
So, Mrs. Damer was an irresistible magnet for any of my thinking about sexuality in the 18th century. She was a sort of a test case: How come it was all right for most women to be besotted with their female friends, but Mrs. Damer got into trouble? I’ve been preoccupied with her story since I found out about itabout 1990and I’ve always thought I would tackle it as a novel.
It is a strange case, and it raises a lot of questions about how people have thought about friendship between women in the past and how they think about it now. “Passionate friendship”a friendship that’s both emotionally intimate and physically affectionateis sort of impossible today. Anyone looking at that sort of relationship now would call it lesbianism, but that hasn’t always been the case.
ED: Yeah, we’re pretty crude today Actually, there’s a really interesting novel by Lisa Alther, called Bedrock, about two women who are lifelong friends, and they do ultimately become lovers, but that’s not really what the novel is about. The main point is their wondering, “What is this thing we have between us? What form of love is it? What do we call it?”
Lesbian historical fictionwhich, ten years ago, you would have said was the most obscure of genresis doing so much better. People like Sarah Waters have had such success, and I think it’s because people are actually impatient with labels. I think people are very interested in writing that explores sexuality before the labels, writing that gets back to subtleties and, well, oddities
I mean, I find it fascinating that Horace Walpole [the author of The Castle of Otranto, who appears as a character in Life Mask] was clearly such a big fag, and yet, at the end of his life, he is besotted by Mary Berry How do we name the romantic yearning of a 70-year-old gay manas we would call him nowfor a young woman? We might ask, “What’s going on there?” But we need to respect that desire as much as any of his other interests.
Of course, we all know and live these ambiguities in our own lives. I know plenty of people who are officially one thing but have a passion or two on the other side. It’s very liberating to write about an era before the labels were introduced. I mean, the labels are usefulthere’s a reason for thembut many people find them confining.
I taught a high school class on the history of gender and most of my students were quite surprised to discover that there was a time when there was no such thing as a homosexual. There were acts that we might call homosexual now, there were relationships between people of the same sex that were romantic and erotic But the homosexual, as we know it, is pretty much a new thing.
ED: And perhaps not a permanent thing. Nowadays, you get 16-year-olds saying, “Let me just do my thing with whomever,” which is oddly like the 18th century.
Yeah, I have a friend who’s transsexual and he knows some trannie youngsters My friend is sort of old school, in that he was very uncomfortable growing up in a girl’s body and he’s struggled his whole life to be a man, and now he’s encountering young people who are much more flexible about gender and sexuality
ED: The tension between transsexual and transgender is fascinating. They really are two different philosophies.
And the kids, they’re just mixing it all up.
ED: You know, I can think of some novels about people of ambiguous gender in previous centuriessomething like Patricia Duncker’s novel about James Miranda Barry. I think people are fascinated by stories of cross-dressers because, again, it’s getting back before there were two absolutely neat genders. It’s looking back at explanations like hermaphroditism, or someone’s sex miraculously changing, or someone living a life in disguisethese are all different ways at coming at what we now tend to call transgender.
I’ve always found it liberating to go back to the past and step outside the narrow frame of discussion that we have nowadays. So many of our conversations are, “Do you believe A, or do you believe B?” In particular, when I started writing in the early ’90s, there were a lot of very deadening feminist controversies: Are you pro- or anti-SM? Are you pro- or anti-abortion?this kind of thing. And if you step back a couple of hundred years, it’s as if you’re in a broader, more ambiguous world.
That’s totally true. So many categories that people cling tothat people think of as God-given or naturalare products of the 19th century.
ED: Sure. Look at a word like “wife.” People use it as if it has this unchanging meaning, when in fact, a kind of double-income, equal partner thing: that’s totally different from what “wife” meant a hundred years ago.
That brings us, somewhat obliquely, to one of the things that I’ve particularly enjoyed in your fiction: I appreciate the way you depict women at work. It drives me slightly crazy when people talk about “working women” as if they’re a mid-20th-century phenomenon, and purely middle-class phenomenonas if “working women” only become “working women” when they are women who could have stayed at home. Is this something you’ve consciously tried to depict in your fiction, or something that comes out simply because you’re trying to depict reality?
ED: You know, that’s interesting, because I remember getting a bad review of my very first novel, Stir-fry. It was about students, who didn’t have jobs yet, and the reviewer complained that these girls just mooned around all the time, thinking about their love-lives, and they seemed to have no interest in the world of work. Since then, I’ve gotten a bit older, and I’ve gotten interested in lives that have a bit of substance in them, so there’s more going on in them than romance.
In Slammerkin, I consciously decided to make the main character a prostitute because that seemed to symbolize all shit jobs. I mean, people say, “I’m whoring for Microsoft,” or, “I’m a media slut,”they constantly use this metaphor. Where do you feel that you’re selling yourself, renting yourself out? I think that prostitution is an archetypal job. Perhaps because I’ve never had a real job, I’m fascinated by the bargains that people make with the world of work.
I was so lucky with Life Mask. As I’ve said already, this was a great story, that kind of fell into my lap, and I didnt’t need to do much with the overall shape of the story. Similarly, I didn’t need to go to great lengths to find career women. I mean, there were actually more traces left of the careers of Eliza and Anne than of Derby. He was such a background figure; it was quite difficult to track down any aspects of the Whig party that he had taken part in. But there were many traces of the art career of Mrs. Damer and the theater career of Eliza Farren. So, in a way, that made it very modern. What’s interesting is that you’ve got this society in which men and women seem so equalthey’re very sophisticated and chatty and they’re all fairly well educated and they’ve all got they’re workthen ever now and then the women come against this glass wall. I mean, the duchess of Devonshire: she seems such a free agent. And then she gets pregnant by a lover and suddenly her husband sends her off into exile in revolutionary France and keeps her children from her. So, really, it’s a misleading kind of modernity.
That’s another thing I try to do in historical fiction: to keep readers carefully balanced between moments of feeling that these characters are just like them and moments of feeling gasp who the hell are you? For instance, I’ll have a character come out with some nice, liberal, lefty sentiment and then say, “I’d never have black in the house.” You have to balance it very carefully. You don’t want to make your readers feel that these characers are vile, but you don’t want to erase the fact that they had views we wouldn’t.
What to Read: Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue
The thing is to take your own life in your hands.
“The Tale of the Bird”
The first book by Emma Donoghue I ever read was Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins. It was the title that caught my eye, with its promise of deviant magic. Donoghue’s stories take place between two traditions: that of fairy tales, and that of the women who subvert them. Angela Carter comes instantly to mind. In her saucy revisions, the desires which lead little girls to their punishment are permissible; beauty becomes the beast. In Donoghue’s telling, Cinderella falls in love with her fairy godmother.
Donoghue is not just interested in sex, though; as is the case with all her fiction, social status is interrogated, too. Traditional fairy tales reinforce class distinctions; Donoghue’s stories dismantle them. In “The Tale of the Handkerchief,” a princess prefers life as a goose girl, and her maid learns the joy and anxiety of being a queen.
Like Carter, and A.S. Byatt, and Kelly Link, Donoghue uses very old tropes and figures to tell very contemporary stories. Like them, she reenchants the world, and like them uses fairy tales to question the truths of fairy tales. Unlike them, though, but like Francesca Lia Block, she writes for children. Her stories usher the young reader from familiar magic to the magic of the possible.
What to Read: Passions Between Women by Emma Donoghue
Tribady, an activity that is rarely discussed, provides a stimulating metaphor for the business of doing history. The researcher is not so much penetrating the past to find what she wants as making contact with it, touching the surface of her present interest to the details of the past; the more she touches, the more she will become sensitised to the nuances she is exploring. This friction between centuries can bring us a sense of intimacy with our foresisters, as well as great pleasure, and laughter when things fail to fit. Passions Between Women is primarily intended to get the stories to the women, so that we can all take part in this never-ending act of tribady that is lesbian history.
Emma Donoghue in her introduction to Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801
Emma Donoghue is a historian as well as a writer of fiction, and, in Passions Between Women, she turns her attention to lesbian history during the late-17th and 18th centuries. I’ve just started reading it, and I’m enjoying it immensely. Donoghue announces in her introduction that she doesn’t just want this book to be for academics only; she’s writing for “readers-for-pleasure,” too. Thus, she makes her book fun to read. Her language is occasionally playful and blessedly clearshe feels no need to fill up the page with jargon.
Donoghue is herself a crafty, creative reader. Her book isn’t so much a history of facts as it is a history of texts; Donoghue uses documentspoems, novels, pamphlets, medical treatisesto demonstrate the full range of concepts and definitions of lesbian sexuality and identity available to the people who created and consumed them. Not only is she able to find and recognize fruitful source materials, but she’s able to make these disparate texts speak to and illuminate each other. In doing so, she substantially adds to our understanding of how women who loved other women might have perceived themselves and their desires in early-modern Britain. As entertaining as it is edifying, Passions between Women is for anyone who digs a rousing work of cultural history.
Interview: Emma Donoghue, Part One
Life Mask is the intimately epic tale of Eliza Farren, a Drury Lane actress; Anne Damer, a female sculptor of some note; and Lord Derby, a liberal politician. It’s magnificent. As she excavates these now-obscure 18th-century figures to weave a scandalous love triangle, Emma Donoghue explores issues of class and gender and desire and civic life in a time of terror. She also crafts a grand entertainment, a delightfully erudite page-turner.
Donoghue is a historian. Her historical fictions are the product of much research, and her novel is rich with detail and all the information the reader needs to fully understand the time and place in which it’s set. But Donoghue is also a masterful storyteller, and her prose is never pedantic. There are a few moments in Life Mask when she uses the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” to draw explicit parallels between the English reaction to the French Revolution and the American government’s current war on terror, but, as she explains in this interview, she did this “to alert the less attentive reader” to the comparison she was making.
Life Mask really lives through its characters. None of them is perfecttheirs is an emotionally and morally complex talebut each of them is so fully formed, so fully alive, that it’s impossible not to find them sympathetic. I really enjoyed the story of Life Mask, and I was sorry when it was over, but I really missed Eliza, Anne, and Derby for days after I read the last page. It was lovely to be able to talk to Donoghue about them. This interview is the first half of my recent conversation with her. I’ll be publishing the rest Friday, so come back for our discussion of Sapphists and shit jobs. Emma Donoghue Week continues tomorrow with more on her other books.