Sunday, July 10, 2016

Veronica by Mary Gaitskill

An ex-model reflects on her wild ride of a life and her relationship with an older woman who resists society’s conforming rules

Pretty Alison escapes her suburban New Jersey existence and becomes a top model in Paris, the mistress of a powerful man, enjoying all the decadent perquisites of the position.  Her hubris destroys that situation and she soon finds herself back in New Jersey, attending community college with her little sister.  At a temp job, she meets Veronica, the outspoken somewhat pitiful older woman who will not act the meek part she is expected to play.  Then Veronica gets AIDS. Alison pities her and tries to help though most of the time condescends.  Once again Alison leaves the family home for a shot at modeling, this time also successful, but also this time fraught with drug and sexual abuse. Finally, disabled, on the West Coast, her beautiful face ruined, she takes a charity job cleaning an office.

I really admired this novel.  For its ambitious structure, its top notch writing and its wrestling with messy subjects such as forgiveness and ambition. the work is ingeniously structured, opening and closing with a fairy tale, alternating between Alison’s current humble life, her memories of Paris, the story of her working class family, and her time with Veronica, how infuriating and fascinating Veronica could be.  The reality was that Veronica was a pitiful cat lady with AIDS, yet she acted like a queen.  The title of the book says Veronica, but the story is really about Alison’s journey from beautiful yet selfish young woman to her fall as a cleaning lady with a messed up face, hepatitis and yet a deep love for nature and appreciation for life. 

The writing, its technical virtuosity, is so beautiful, the book got painful at times to read.  The voice is beautiful when it uses plain words and beautiful when it’s using fancy words and fancy constructions.  This book needs to be savored, not blown through.  Although at times it dips into slightly precious overwriting, in which I became too conscious of the style and forgot the story.  And the story is Alison searching for some sort of meaning in the painful vicissitudes of life.  And how love seems to redeem the pain.

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