Sunday, April 14, 2013

Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge

I've been thinking about good story telling a lot lately.  On Friday evening I sat at the Rittenhouse BandN with a friend and I read aloud to her a passage from a novel that I found amusing.  She commented: "I've heard or seen something like that before. Maybe on a sitcom." This same friend recently read a book based on my recommendation and had analogous feedback. "It wasn't novel. It felt derivative." She said she only enjoys books that are different.  I've been mulling over whether it is possible to truly create something different and new.

I remember a creative writing professor in college talking about three main stories: love, death and war. In trying to find what he was quoting, I have found many other quotes about fiction and literature.

Paulo Coello: "Borges said there are only four stories to tell: a love story between two people, a love story between three people, the struggle for power and the voyage. All of us writers rewrite these same stories ad infinitum.”

Willa Cather: "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercly as if they had never happened before."

Others assert that there are seven basic plots.

So what truly makes a novel story?

Potentially, I am just not a discerning reader, but I like reading different takes on the same idea. I love reading about interesting family dynamics, I love reading about change over time, I am a sucker for a good romance or a good coming of age story, and I devour thought-provoking contemporary fiction.

So I suppose the idea of reading about someone who has woken up from a dissociative fugue didn't feel completely new to me.  And yet there were so many aspects of Love Water Memory that felt unique. I disappeared inside the book for most of the afternoon and evening yesterday.  I was captivated by the experiences of 39 year old Lucie Walker who was suddenly cast in the role of anthropologist and detective of her own life.

The novel starts with Lucie standing knee deep in the San Francisco Bay.  Asked if she is okay she replies "I don't know."  She can't feel her legs, she does not know her name.  She can discern that the decor of a hospital room is straight out of the early 90's and yet she has no autobiographical memory.  Shortridge does such a fantastic job of allowing the reader to share in Lucie's confusion and her dawning sense of discovery, fear and revelation.

Since the story is told from both the perspective of Lucie and that of her fiance. Grady, the reader is able to understand how maddening and disorienting amnesia can be for both the individual suffering through it and their family members.  How do you bring someone home who doesn't remember you at all? How do you respect their privacy and try to get them to love you again?  This sort of story has been told in a Nicholas Spark's novel/movie and it came across as treachly and unrealistic.  Shortridge does an excellent job making Lucie and Grady's story feel realistic. There is an element of representing them as being destined to be together in some ways, but it doesn't come across as too much.

It was fascinating to watch Lucie view her former life through new eyes, and to eventually understand why the two wildly different Lucie's came to be.  I walked away with questions about how realistic Lucie's experience with dissociative fugue was, and yet I found Shortridge's telling of Lucie's story incredibly real. In learning more about the former Lucie, I came to question why Grady was with her, or why she was in some ways cold and disconnected from others, but eventually that part of her character is explained.

I also really enjoyed the imagery in the story.  Water plays as central a role in the characters lives as love and memory.  Lucie wakes up, reborn, a new version of herself (or an old one I suppose) with her feet in the Bay. Grady breaks his foot, and this immobilization is key to a great deal of character development. Because of this injury he is for the first time a fish out of water (unable to swim) and this immobilizes his development in some ways, but also forces him to greater understanding.

I found myself particularly taken with this late "coming of age" story. Lucie is on the verge of forty and still discovering herself. Grady is beyond forty and still coming to terms with his own past, still looking to be a better person.  It makes someone like me (who is on the verge of 30) feel a little bit better about what I often view as my own late development.

Love Water Memory was a very thought-provoking and engaging read. I'm interested to hear what others thought of the book.

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