Forgive me, internet, for I have slipped. It had been … at least a month since I last bought a book. Yesterday I bought two. Does anyone remember Nick Hornby’s delightful Believer column in which he documented what he read vs. what he bought? This project definitely threatens to slip into that territory. For the record, I came home from Word with A Game of Thrones (because I’m caught up on the series and just know I’m going to want more the moment Sunday’s season finale airs) and Alina Simone’s You Must Go and Win (because she was really funny when I saw her read last week, and I’m inclined to support anyone who stands in Word’s tiny, wonderful basement and does a deadpan Britney Spears cover).
But then I pulled an older book off the Shelf of Doom and fell right into it. Now, the real danger is the temptation to order every Ellen Gilchrist book I can from Powell’s. I used to have so many of them. I had them for years. More years than I remembered; my copy of The Annunciation dates back to when I noted the dates I finished books on their inside covers (a habit I’m tempted to pick back up, Goodreads or no Goodreads). It’s entirely typical that I pared down the stack to just two before I moved — and then promptly remembered why I had all those books in the first place.
I picked up Gilchrist for a purely self-centered reason: When I was in college, my stepfather read something I wrote — an essay, a paper, a story; I remember writing about watching tiny spiders appear from a nest on my backyard playground — and told my mother I could be the Ellen Gilchrist of the Pacific Northwest. My mother told me, and I, ignorant and curious, went to Smith Family and bought the Gilchrist book that looked the most interesting.
Or maybe I picked The Annunciation because it was her first novel. Maybe not. My messy scribble inside the cover says “Summer 1996,” which is a story of its own.
I remember almost nothing about the book, but that it made me pick up all these other now-lost Gilchrists. My January culling left me with only The Anna Papers and The Courts of Love. Why did I pull Anna off the Shelf of Doom yesterday? Because I tried Out of Africa and wasn’t in the mood. Because I want to alternate brand-new books with the books I’ve had the longest. Because some part of my brain remembered that Gilchrist writes fearlessly about fearless women, fearful women, passionate women who make mistakes and aren’t afraid to think their lives are charmed or cursed or wonderful, despite the pressures of family and the rest of the world.
Anna Hand isn’t entirely likable, which is why I like her so: Her glossy, disguised self-pity, her hand-waving kindness, her disregard for how other people live in the world. She’s a force, and Gilchrist writes her with a breathless practicality that comes through in long sentences, rambles, a sharp eye for trees and a blunt honesty about sex. Anna is a famous writer, but that’s nearly as irrelevant to Gilchrist’s story as it is to Anna’s family, whom she bothers, loves, troubles, helps, pushes, helps and horrifies, whether at a distance or up close, when she leaves New York to go home to North Carolina.
Anna’s story spins out through love, through affair after affair, in her inability to settle on just one man or stay out of her brother’s affairs. She’s a busybody and a loner, locking herself away to work and then running off to Oklahoma to find the daughter her brother Daniel isn’t sure he wants to acknowledge. As overblown as Anna can be — as swoopy and generous and impulsive — Gilchrist grounds this almost soap-opera plot in the pragmatic, and in Anna’s certainty that blood matters. The girl is family.
That’s all there is to it: family, as it sprawls and tangles through the South. The oldest child, Anna steers her siblings as a child, and continues doing so after her abrupt death. The effect of Anna’s papers on her sister Helen only takes up a small third of the book, at most, but it gives Gilchrist’s story a title and a theme: letters, books, stories told and revisited, the mythology of childhood and the tales that we use to define the people around us. The papers that make up one life can change another.
Gilchrist writes prose that feels swift and simple, unfussy but descriptive, never self-indulgent. It’s almost plain, but for the characters that come to life within it. That juxtaposition seduces: all these ruler-straight sentences alternating with ones that I want to stuff commas into, or plain dialogue after long, internal paragraphs. Anna Hand is a knot of need and love, and her story is the same things, but carefully laid out, told with beautiful clarity and a dry, gentle sort of sympathy.
Now, I only want to read all the Ellen Gilchrist things.