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A FEATHER ON THE BREADTH OF GOD

By Sigrid Nunez
New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995
ISBN: 0-06=092684-8 (pkb)
180 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2014

This novel is a decent read, a challenge and definitely something out of the ordinary. I simply canít rave about it being a great book high up on my list of recent reads. Yet it haunts me, nags at me and kept me reading. Further, the novel is definitely a story quite limited to a world that I donít know much about Ė a life of great struggle in the slums of New York city, a set of parents that I canít very well image despite her gifted attempts to make them real, a lover whom she excuses almost everything horrible he does until he tells her of things even she canít deal with.

While itís a book outside my own world of experience, Sigrid Nunez does make it live, makes it believable and kept me reading. There much to be said for that alone. Iíve read relatively few novels that focus almost exclusively on underclass family life and life in that environment in the U.S. in the late 50s and 1960s.

The narrator is the third daughter of a strange marriage between a Chinese Panamanian man and a German woman. The two met when he was a U.S. soldier in German at the end of WWII. Their first two children were born before they married, and then the narrator, baby of the family, came shortly after their marriage.

The couple returned to the U.S. even though neither of them much liked the U.S., especially Christa, her mother, who always dreamed of returning to Germany. She did make several short visits back, but always returned to New York, complaining about it all the time.

Her father is a very silent man. He does lower level work and they live in the slums of New York. He seldom talks to his wife or daughters, yet they all basically get along, however, the reader learns almost nothing about the narratorís two siblings.

Their lives were hard, if not hopeless, with few dreams entertained and few being fulfilled. Nonetheless, while the narrator tells of little of her adult work life, we do realize she is living in a world closer to the U.S. middle class.

After a difficult childhood there is a moment of flash and splash that gives the novel its title. As a young teen she takes ballet lessons and finds this a simply exhilarating experience. She sees the ballerina as a very special sort of female person and compares it with the vocation of a nun to her life. Ballet, for her, is compared to the life Saint Hildegard, a nun from the Dark Ages. Hildegard described the nunís life as ď. . . a feather on the breadth of GodĒ and the narrator sees, in her early days, ballet as the same sort of experience. Ballet was a world away from the slums, away from their poverty, away from the fighting and disfunctionality of her family. She floated on clouds of joy, achievement and dreams. She even tells us:

ďThe dream of being a ballerina begins with the dream of being beautiful.Ē

This dream dominates at least for a while, but somehow the dream explodes. Then even ballet came crushing down on her, partly because she canít really rise to the top, and partially because she comes to see it controlled by menís images of woman as object, and she is startled and disappointed in how much men control the world of ballet.

She had loved ballet, including its pain, but she didnít really respect it. She thinks it is a male dominated activity to dominate women. Men write the music and the ballet itself. The clothes and even toe shoes are oppressive to women.

Later she becomes a teacher, at least various odd jobs of teaching, and loves her single life with lots of lovers. She does enjoy men very much.

Eventually Vadim comes into her life. He is a recent immigrant from Odessa, Ukraine. He is crude, rough, but fascinating and handsome. They become lovers. She is in her twenties, no longer living at home, but tells us very little about her material situation. Vadim is married and has children, and the affair with this married man doesnít bother her in the slightest. He even tells her of his wifeís response to their extramarital affair, but she accepts his wifeís sadness as to what she, the narrator, has to do in her life at this time.

She was indeed, fascinated, but not in love with him. The breaking point is to discover that he ďranĒ some prostitutes in Odessa. The breakup was sudden and quick, yet as the novel ends were are told that sheís in therapy, and I think most readers would come away believing that the life she described was such that her being alone, struggling economically and in therapy is no surprise.

The novel seems informed and very sensitive to the effects of the life she and her family lived. Itís often not a very pleasant story, but it rings true yet definitely sad. I was quite satisfied that I had read it.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu