Credit Claire Lewis
PAGES FOR HER
By Sylvia Brownrigg
384 pp. Counterpoint $26.
Sylvia Brownrigg’s “Pages for You,” a novel narrated by a naïve Yale freshman, was published in 2001. Just 17, Flannery was swept into an intoxicating, life-altering affair with an older graduate student and teaching assistant named Anne. Underlying her story was a sense of nascent promise — not just a sexual awakening but a whole life coming into focus. Flannery became besotted with Anne, but also with the potential that Anne augured for Flannery’s own adulthood.
Yet “Pages for Her,” the novel’s long-awaited sequel, set 20 years later, is cut through with disappointment. Flannery, now 38, is married to a successful artist named Charles, a boorish alpha male who’s self-centered and prodigious in both physicality and temper. The couple have a 6-year-old daughter, Willa, whose existence has helped distract Flannery from her frustrated creative ambitions. Having published a racy, successful roman à clef in her 20s, she now teaches part time at an arts college and wonders what happened to her once-complex identity. “Was there room in one self for author, parent, lesbian, mistress, wife, companion, solitaire?” she contemplates. “Or was the self finally a fixed size, incapable of containing such multitudes?”
“Pages for You” — written in sensuous, lyrical prose that contrasted appealingly with its truncated, two-page chapters — was a poetic outburst of obsession and energy. Flannery fell in love with Anne, yes, but also with the lush fall colors of New England and the writers she discovered in class and the unprecedented rush of sexual pleasure. “Pages for Her” is the deflating thud of reality, rudely encountered.
Flannery, sadder and wiser as an adult, seems to be sleepwalking through life when she’s invited to speak at a Yale conference for women writers moderated by Anne, who has become a respected academic and author. The prospect of a reunion gives the novel its zing; it’s hard to shed a tear for Charles, “a heavy breather, a snorer, a guffawer,” as well as a defiantly lazy father and an unfaithful jerk.
Alas, Brownrigg delays this meeting between the two women until the last fifth of the novel, choosing instead to flesh out the vicissitudes of Flannery’s life as a parent. Interspersed among the lengthy accounts of late kindergarten pickups and pizza dinners and cutesy conversations are a handful of sharp observations about motherhood and womanhood. Flannery suppresses her “distaste and indignation” at her husband’s behavior, and is subsequently described as “Willa’s mother,” as though parenting has drained her of even the very last vestige of her writerly self — her name. And in a provocative moment, she compares her obsession with Anne to her all-consuming love for Willa: “Everything you saw reminded you of her; you thought about her all the time; the world’s other shades faded next to the implacable brightness of the one you loved.”
One of the gratifying aspects of “Pages for Her” is that it spends its central section with Anne, offering more insight into a woman who was seen in “Pages for You” only through the lens of Flannery’s heady infatuation. Now 48, childless, parentless and recently abandoned by her long-term partner, Anne can’t tell if she feels “free, or unmoored.” But the gnawing question from the previous book — whether readers should be compelled or disturbed by the story of a relationship between a 28-year-old teaching assistant and a 17-year-old virgin — is left alone.
When Anne and Flannery finally meet, the novel kicks into gear. The sexual energy crests, but more rewarding is some sense of the Flannery of old returning: audacious, confident, smart, seductive. Then “Pages for Her” ends, almost abruptly, as if Brownrigg knows these are characters whose story still has places to go.
Source: New York Times