Books are more than the stories printed on paper. They are also the memories we slip between the pages, like bookmarks in our favorite spots. Flora, still seeking answers after her mother’s mysterious death years before, feels daunted by her ailing father’s sprawling book collection (amassed more for the ephemera tucked between the covers—receipts, grocery lists, and inscriptions—than the actual titles or authors). She doesn’t know how much of her own family’s history, how many answers, are pressed between the pages.
She had me from the “I Capture the Castle” reference. Flora and Nan have a brilliant author for a father, a famous recluse known for the mysterious disappearance of his wife decades before, and one lauded novel (hence the reference to “Jacob Wrestling”). When Gil, the girls’ father, sees his dead wife walking down the street in broad daylight, reality shifts. How well do we ever know anyone, especially our spouses?
In some ways Fuller’s gorgeous second novel reminds me of Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies.” Fuller presents two very different portraits of a marriage, of a love story, and of a man. The aged, possibly delusional, Gil is difficult to reconcile with the impassioned professor, vigorous lover, and literary Playboy Ingrid depicts in the letters she pens late at night when she cannot sleep. Likewise, Ingrid’s voice, repressed and lonely, loving but distant, angry and forgiving, is equally hard to match with an older body, one that aged alongside Gil’s. Her death is the only easy reconciliation; or is it?
For Ingrid’s part, the first pregnancy was an accident, and she always meant to finish her degree, an all too familiar story. She fell in love with the moody, enigmatic and brilliant literature professor reluctantly, intrigued by a flower in her bicycle spokes and seduced by his mind and arrogance. After reading her letters we start to hope, like Gil and Flora, that Ingrid is still alive somewhere, because how can this woman, with her dry humor, her love of life and her family, be dead?
The nature of memory plays an important role in this story. Why do we hold on to receipts, write grocery lists, and pen inscriptions? Why do we write letters never meant to be read? We want to remember, or to be remembered. Memory is a practical device, explaining where that $200 went, or as reminders to buy more toothpaste; lists bring an illusion of order in a universe of chaos. Memory is also an emotional device designed, from an evolutionary standpoint, to keep us alive, and to preserve our spirit in the mind of another. Most importantly, memory is faulty. Just as Ingrid and Gil may remember their marriage differently, Flora and Nan also remember their shared childhoods differently.
Fuller exploits the faulty nature of memory to write another stunning ending. (I’m still not over the ending of “Our Endless Numbered Days.”) She inserts a subtle shift, like the flicker of red in the corner of your eye you aren’t sure you saw, which changes both nothing and everything. Parts mystery, family drama, and a portrait of a marriage, this second novel is a beautiful homage to the powers of literature and storytelling in our lives.