Larque Harootunian is having a midlife crisis like no other—but then again, there is much about the frumpy, middle-aged housewife and mother that could never be considered ordinary. Larque’s lifelong ability to generate “dopplegangers,” for example—physical manifestations of her thoughts and emotions—has been a constant source of stress. And now she is being tormented by Skylark, a re-creation of her younger self, an angry inner child who is tormenting Larque about abandoning her youthful ambitions while running away with her artistic abilities, thereby depriving the older Larque of a livelihood as a painter of kitsch.
But perhaps this is Larque’s opportunity to explore her options. Acquiescing to Sky’s demands that she change herself, Larque tries on a series of different personas—to the consternation of her mother, husband, and teenage sons—and finds her way to Popular Street. There, among the devil-may-care misfits, Larque can be Lark, a handsome young gay man, and quite possibly discover what her life is really about.
Yet again the clever folks at Open Road Media have taken a fascinating out-of-print magic realism book and given it in ebook format to a new audience. I really enjoyed this book.
For starters even now you don't get to read many books with spunky middle-aged women as their central character. We middle-aged women seem to disappear from fiction as we sometimes feel we do in real life, the latter being something Larque bemoans. This book is an exploration of how we deny what we are. Springer uses the magic realist device of the doppelgangers as a way of manifesting the aspects of Larque's personality.
As the enigmatic Shadow says: People, most people, are like flowers with three parts, three petals that overlap. One part is the child. Whatever you were as a child, everything you feared, everything you wanted or dreamed, it all stays with you. One part is the parent. Whatever your mother or father or teachers told you or wanted you to be, that is part of you too. And the rest of you is self, your unique mind and will. One part in three. Very Jungian (after all, the person saying this called Shadow for goodness sake) only it is Jungian with jokes. Lots of jokes.
If you think dealing with teenage children is bad, just imagine what it is like dealing with your young self who feels unloved and rejected. Larque initially really dislikes her childhood self, particularly when Sky puts her foot through Larque's canvases covered with kitsch but lucrative images of twee rural scenes. Until Sky arrives whenever Larque felt the urge to produce something creative, she lay down until the spasm passed. Brain farts did not sell. Real people did not want originality; they just wanted something that matched the living room drapes. Sky's actions makes Larque rethink what she wants from her art.
Larque is forced to confront the fact that she doesn't like herself as she is and so, urged on by Sky, she allows Shadow to transform her into the character she dreamed of being. This, it turns out, is a young cowboy. Larque as a child had identified with male cowboy heroes in film or on the television rather than any female role models. But despite her physical transformation Larque retains her soul and her woman's heart and so remains sexually attracted to men. This opens a whole can of worms about gender and sexuality, which the book deals with with the same wry lightness of touch. The homosexuality of three of the main characters in the book is handled sensitively and with understanding. It is worth remembering that this book was first published in 1994 when AIDS was a death sentence and homophobic attitudes were more mainstream. But for me the key thing that stands out is that even the adult Larque cannot see her middle-aged female self as being bold enough to pursue her dreams.
The third element in Larque's character is her mother's creation: The Virtuous Woman. Larque's mother like her daughter has a magic ability to transform people, but in contrast to Larque she does so in a way that denies what they truly are, instead getting rid of what she doesn't like and replacing it with what she does. Thus tomboy Sky is transformed into a prissy little girl. Larque calls this behaviour of her mother's "blinking". It is such a wonderful image of what most of us will have experienced - a parent who sees us as something other than we are and as a consequence we find ourselves falling into that role.
I realize on looking at what I have written so far, that one might feel that this book is feminist magic realism and indeed it does have some similarities to Virginia Woolf's Orlando, but it is actually about a midlife crisis that men and women experience, so I have no qualms about recommending it to all my readers.
I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.