Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Margarettown (Gabrielle Zevin)


After learning the hard way, I told myself that I wouldn't be taken in by a cover or a blurb without being certain of the story's merits. The last real disappointment of this sort came via Tiffanie Debartolo's God-Shaped Hole. (Okay, that may sound a bit harsh, but what I really mean was that I had higher hopes for a story that contained a personal ad saying, "I'm seeking a friend for the end of the world" than what the novel actually delivered. Are contemporary love stories really doomed to be the literary world’s favorite spot for clich├ęs?) Since then, one practice I've employed on purchasing books cold is to check if there was an approving review from the New Yorker or some other credible body (like my best friend).

Yesterday, though, I couldn't resist Gabrielle Zevin's Margarettown. No recommendation from my best friend, no glowing New Yorker review at the back. Actually, there wasn't a review there at all. The blurb almost felt like one of those chain e-mails that clogs my inbox, part of which reads: It is the story of what it takes to love the same person for a lifetime – and about the impossibility of really knowing anything about who it is we have come to love. You know the type. So why did I end up buying it? Because I'm a pushover for love stories, and it was the fact that this was unabashedly, unapologetically a love story that gave it its appeal.

Ms. Zevin's language is precise and appropriate, and she effectively uses this to explore what I think is a lovely premise for a boy-meets-girl story. Her protagonist is nameless, familiar, as we watch him fall in love with the equally familiar Margaret Towne, a woman who contains a world of other women inside her (and no, I don’t mean in the schizophrenic or even alien-ish sense). Ms. Zevin addresses a lot of relationship issues in her novel. Margaret and her incarnations are engaging, and in a way, so is our narrator, who candidly claims, "Much as I hate to admit it, I was, at times, the villain in this story. At other times, I was the love interest (p. 32)."

Sadly, the story drags past our protagonist and his Margaret. While some of these chapters are actually insightful, I find that they diminish the story's impact. Thankfully, though, they’re mostly short chapters, and I wasn't compelled to linger on these pages.

But just when I thought I was getting too much of those dragging chapters, Ms. Zevin hits me with one that reduces me into a sobbing mess (I'm hormonal this time of the month). I reread that particular chapter a few hours later and still I had to lie facedown in bed (in true dramatic fashion). It was on my third read that I finally got through it without shedding a single tear, and I realized that while her words were simple, perhaps even maudlin to some, they knew what they were saying.

True, at times I felt that Ms. Zevin belabored the point. I get it already. She sums it up quite well when she says, "Real love is not just instinct, but intent (p. 240)," but that doesn't stop her from coming up with many other permutations of this thought. Love is a choice. Love is an act of faith. Love is willing yourself to love. The sentiment is significantly moving in itself, but when repeated countless of times, it loses its color. Despite this, I have to give Ms. Zevin points for not losing her earnestness and spirit -- and most of all, her insight. It is in this regard that I think Margarettown succeeds. It is a no-commitment read, yes, but one that burrows itself into your memories, making it a tribute to all the people you've ever loved, even if you’ve only ever really loved one.

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