Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Carol Goodman

Carol Goodman is the critically acclaimed author of over a dozen novels, including The Lake of Dead Languages and The Seduction of Water, which won the 2003 Hammett Prize. Her books have been translated into sixteen languages. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family, and teaches writing and literature at the New School and SUNY New Paltz.

Goodman's latest novel is The Other Mother.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Goodman's reply:
When the editor was kind enough to ask me to contribute to Writers Read I thought: “Aha! I’ve got this!” Usually such requests catch me in a lowbrow moment when I’ve just read the latest potboiler suspense novel. Not that there’s anything wrong with potboiler suspense novels—they’re what I write and I write them because I love reading them. In fact, I recently read two delicious ones: A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window and Greer Hendricks’ and Sarah Pekkanen’s The Wife Between Us, both compulsively readable novels featuring unreliable narrators, shifting identities, and some hard drinking. All my favorite things! But this time I also had a tonier response: I just finished reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.

I’d read it in my teens, but unlike Jane Eyre, which I’ve reread four times, I hadn’t reread it since. My vague recollections of the novel were of romantic wanderings on windswept moors, Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon playing the star-crossed lovers Cathy and Heathcliff in the 1939 film, and some ghosts. But wasn’t there a whole second half of the book concerning Cathy’s and Heathcliff’s children? And wasn’t Heathcliff kind of a jerk?

Still, when my daughter [illustrator of scene from Wuthering Heights, bottom right] mentioned she was reading it with a group of friends I eagerly joined the group. I like to encourage millennials to read the classics and, after all, I’d dragged my daughter to the Brontë parsonage last summer and made her walk in the rain on the moors. I owed her.

The first thing I noticed was how compulsively readable it is. Talk about a potboiler! Within the first few chapters a ghost has plunged its hand through a window and Nelly Dean has offered to tell the traveler Lockwood the whole sordid tale of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. And what a tale it is! When the master of Wuthering Heights rescues a destitute orphan from the Liverpool streets, he introduces a volatile force into his family that sets off the star-crossed love affair between his daughter Cathy and Heathcliff and a bitter rivalry between Heathcliff and Cathy’s brother Hindley. By the end of the first half of the book, Heathcliff has gone off into the world to make his fortune and come back to reclaim his soul mate—never mind that she’s married to the safe but boring Edgar Linton. One would think that was enough for one book—and the directors of the 1939 film apparently thought so since this was all that film covered. And that’s how most of us remember Wuthering Heights—as a tale of star-crossed lovers.

It is, however, a much stranger and more complicated work. (Spoilers Ahead) Cathy #1 dies giving birth to Cathy #2. Heathcliff gets his revenge by marrying Linton’s sister Isabel and treating her miserably. Isabel goes away (the only character in the book to get the hell out of the frozen Yorkshire Moors and live comfortably in London for at least a few years) and bears Heathcliff’s son, Young Linton. Meanwhile, after Hindley dies, Heathcliff raises Hindley’s son Hareton, depriving him of an education to spite his dead father. All three of these younger characters seem fated to re-enact the doomed triangle of their elders as part of a malicious plot of Heathcliff’s. Heathcliff really is a jerk! When Cathy is dying she bemoans to Heathcliff that he’ll probably get over her and go on to have children he loves. He assures her that he’ll never love his children—and he’s true to his word. He tortures his son, the neurasthenic, frail Young Linton into an ill-suited marriage to Cathy #2, who is basically kidnapped and forced to live at Wuthering Heights even after Young Linton has died and Heathcliff has defrauded her of her inheritance. That’s the point at which the traveler Lockwood comes upon them and it all looks pretty bleak. The only happy solution our narrator Nelly Dean can see is for Lockwood to marry Cathy #2. In fact, one wonders if the whole tale Nelly tells isn’t arranged for that purpose. How reliable is Nelly, after all, as a narrator, considering she doesn’t really like Cathy or Heathcliff and she has her own grievances to nurse—she is, after all, a blood relation of the Earnshaws and might have expected a bigger piece of the steak and kidney pie from the self-involved players of the drama she relates.

Illustration by Maggie Vicknair
[click to enlarge]
By the end of the book I had begun to suspect that Emily Brontë was more interested in the domestic dynamics of dysfunctional families than in spinning a romance of star-crossed lovers. And, in fact, Wuthering Heights shares much in common with the domestic suspenses so popular today: unreliable narrators, shifting identities—Cathy declares “I am Heathcliff!” which, if taken literally, is a bigger plot twist than anything in Gone Girl—and a whole lot of drinking. My daughter and her friends loved it. And why not? It’s the story of how some young people, against all odds, survive the baggage of their elders.
Visit Carol Goodman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue