Part of a brief series on the non-required reading that I liked best in college.
I had never heard of this novel or its author when I discovered it in a New Jersey secondhand bookstore, nor would I have guessed that it would end up being the best book I read in 2004. What attracted me about it was its length -- I'm always looking for a substantive read -- and its cover photograph of what looks like a debutante's neck with a 1950s evening gown and strand of pearls.The heroine of Maillard's novel has the trappings and the suits of debutantery -- sorority letters, an honors degree from a respectable school (class of '57) and an upstanding, desirable boyfriend. But as she returns to her West Virginia hometown and the country-club set in which she grew up, Gloria keenly feels that all of her roles in life, from privileged teen to campus May Queen, have been a put-on.
She gamely attempts to rejoin this privileged world, but lost in her thoughts, Gloria drifts through her past while she puts off thinking about her uncertain future. The conventions of her old life, distant father and fashionably alcoholic mother, suddenly make her feel like she's living in a foreign country. So too the voice of her college boyfriend, pleading with her to marry him and make their relationship up to this point "official" or "worth it," seems like a dispatch from a different era.
Maillard offers no easy answers or, really, precedent to the way Gloria falls apart in this book. The way she travels back into memory for guidance, for explanation of the self-consciousness with which she has suddenly been burdened -- what she calls the "secret watcher" -- makes the novel so rich and dense I was shocked when I finished the book. Three or four times a year I find myself picking it up and reading hundreds of pages in one sitting, particularly at night, letting the dark circles under my eyes deepen while I wander back into this world. In fact -- heck, I'm going back to read it right now.
Much, much earlier: Max Frankel, THE TIMES OF MY LIFE AND MY LIFE WITH THE TIMES (Freshman Year)
Ingrid Bengis, METRO STOP DOSTOEVSKY (Sophomore Year)
3 hours ago