Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1857
Big as Life is the second installment, after A Lover’s Almanac (1998), in a planned quartet of books chronicling the seasons, this one devoted to Spring. The work is a collection of three novellas—“Children with Matches” (April), “The Magdalene” (May), and “Big as Life” (June)—which, though separate narratives, coalesce in ingenious ways. All deal with the powers of continuity and regeneration and the salvific influence of art on human consciousness.
On the surface, the tales appear to have nothing in common with one another. “Children with Matches” centers on Marie Claude Montour, who has inherited the family estate, now fallen into miserable disrepair. Initially she intends to sell the place, both because of its condition and because of painful memories of having been abandoned there with maiden aunts while her mother flitted off to another of her many trysts. However, soon the house intrigues her and becomes symbolic of the feminist research project she is engaged upon, concerning a colonial woman who refused to cede her property to her widower husband.
“The Magdalene” traces the growth of Mae Boyle, a child of privilege who chafes against her good fortune and opts for a punishing piety of atonement. The family bears a rough similarity to the Kennedys, with their wealth, their cavalier self-confidence, and the patriarch’s unscrupulousness. The story is told from the point of view of Nell, a cousin ten years Mae’s senior, who has been banished from her village in Ireland. Mae pleads with her for stories of pain and misfortune, but Nell has secrets which she never reveals to her cousin, and instead Mae apotheosizes Nell into a heroine for her service as a World War II nurse.
The most densely textured tale is the eponymous “Big as Life,” which itself is divided into three interlocking narratives. The first deals with painter-naturalist John James Audubon and his disastrous finances as he traipses about the landscape, shooting birds and meticulously painting their most minute features. Set in 1826, while Audubon is away in England selling commissions for his as-yet-unpublished masterpiece, The Birds of America, the story concentrates on his wife Lucy and her mounting frustration at her husband’s absence and the family’s grim prospects. The second vignette deals with Artie Freeman and Louise Moffett, a mathematician and sculptor who appeared in A Lover’s Almanac, who have fled New York City with their son for Long Island, where Freeman works as a fellow for a brilliant academic maverick, William Salvino. Like Audubon, his attention drifts away from his family until he explodes at Salvino’s pretensions and abruptly aborts his part in the project. The final episode presents an anonymous first-person voice talking about her family’s horticultural failure and her own teen years spent pouring over Audubon’s books in the local library. With references to Irish Catholics, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and a husband named Mark, the reader can safely infer that this is a fictional projection of Howard herself, entering her own narrative to comment on its significance.
Each is a family narrative, but these are hardly traditional domestic stories; rather, they are tales of dysfunction. Families in Big as Life throw out nets that ensnare their progeny and leave them in states of grief—Marie Claude, abandoned and dreaming of a knight of deliverance to rescue her from her tower; Mae Boyle shriving herself for her family’s sins; Nell ostracized for daring to have loved; Lucy Audubon pining for a mate permanently absent; and Artie and Louise dithering over careers and whether to marry. These families do not nurture confidence and stability but instead despair and diminishment. Not surprisingly, many of the characters are in flight from their relatives, a collection of Dedaluses anxious to be away, anywhere but home. However, even after flight, the nets go out in the form of generational legacies that demand attention and induce guilt and shame.
Each story focuses on the experiences of a woman, and while none of them is a tendentious tract, each does carefully examine women’s marginality. Those in “Children with Matches” are either adornments or lost souls, and even Marie Claude, who seems a self-sufficient, modern woman with an academic career, sees her fulfillment in the attentions of a wealthy man who is often away on one project or another. Her research interest in a colonial feminist who would not bow to the economic conventions of her day runs as a leitmotif throughout the story.
In the second piece, Mae cannot share in the Boyles’s aggressive self-absorption and thus becomes a specter in the family’s shadows. Unassuming and retiring, she is important to no one—even her husband—except for Nell, who flees to Canada for most of her life after two Boyles make sexual advances toward her. For her part, Nell is a victim of the rigid morality of her native village, which regards female sexuality as a form of depravity.
Lucy Audubon, a woman of intellect and artistic promise, must spend her days in penury educating the pampered children of a wealthy plantation family and awaiting the occasional blessing of her husband’s sporadic letters. She is clearly the family’s rock, while her husband flies away like one of his treasured birds to more congenial climes and to a string of engaging adventures. Throughout these novellas, there is no obvious moral except, perhaps, in the ruminations of the author, who finds release and self-definition, not in a man, but in the enchantment of art.
The work’s most intriguing feature is its narrative structure; the prose is tightly coiled and subtle, and no two stories are identically constructed. They oscillate between limpid, elegant prose and blunt colloquialism. The narrators in each story not only relate events but carry on dialogues with the reader, dropping asides, offering ironic rebuttals, and presenting brief comments. The sense of intimacy is palpable and creates an atmosphere of immediacy. Consequently, the focus is as much on the unfolding of plot as on the process of narration itself, and the best illustration can be found in the third story, with its three closely related sketches. Although the collection is not as obviously complicated as Natural History (1992), with its double entry narratives competing with each other on the same page, Big as Life still bears the marks of postmodern experimentation.
Although each story is an independent narrative and each equated with a particular month, they operate as intertextual comments about and links to one another. In “Children with Matches,” an aging banker despairs that his woodsman cannot distinguish one tree from another on his acreage and foreshadows the image of Audubon in the third story, who prides himself on his image as an adroit backwoodsman, replete with buckskin and flintlock. Cyril O’Connor, Mae Boyle’s husband in the second story, was revealed as Artie Freeman’s grandfather in A Lover’s Almanac. In the third story, Howard remembers her younger self poring over Audubon’s magnum opus, thus commenting on the sizeable reach of the artist’s legacy. No story is complete without considering its connection to another, and the technique suggests that no life can exist in isolation from others.
Underlying each of the novellas is the unifying concern with art. The first story, for instance, can be seen as a fairytale of a child held captive who escapes, wanders through the woods, and returns to her captivity, only to find Prince Charming after a life of travail. When cousin Nell finally beds down on the family estate on Long Island and begins studying nursing, Mae Boyle “beg[s] for tales of the children in the polio ward, a morbid interest in the unfortunates,” and of Nell’s hard life in Ireland. Instead Nell offers an artifice of life, “foolish stuff—little girls stolen by the fairies at dusk, a creature left in their place ever so like them but wicked or odd at best. How St. Brigid took her eye out of the socket and popped it back in when her father allowed he would not make her marry. . . . Nonsense.” Folklore becomes the foundation of their affection, though Mae is mesmerized by what Nell regards as ridiculous fabrication. The irony is that such seemingly silly narratives forge a bond that heals deeper personal ruptures. Nell reflects, “That sick child was my salvation, and I suppose I did heal her with my stories, for she gave up her piety, settled to the privileges of her family, to the life of a woman with no remarkable adventures. If I have one fault as a nurse, it’s that I care only for the ailing.”
Audubon creates an art that seeks to capture and represent his subjects, but actually competes with and ultimately supplants them. Lucy questions the meaning of his work:
Art as refuge from despair? I do not believe it happened that way to Audubon. For twenty years he had taken a detour, not a wrong turn—lover, husband, father, teacher, merchant, itinerant painter, entrepreneur—in all roles a touch fraudulent, incomplete. An amateur at the life he had led. . . . he would paint the birds of America, recoup the loss of himself.
To create this art, Audubon must kill the very life that provokes it, and thus in Audubon rests the dichotomy at the center of the entire collection—the tension between life and art. While Audubon never appears to resolve this conflict, years later, Louise Moffett, after studying his paintings, concludes, “ . . . his birds were not real . . . The mastery of craft was coupled with pure magic of invention.” Art is life’s alternative; it enhances the raw stuff that surrounds experience.
In her brief autobiographical sketch, Howard discusses her family’s separation from nature. “I believed that the natural world was missing from the cottage my parents built in the shadows of my grandfather’s imposing stucco house. Nature was at a remove from daily life . . . I do not remember my parents ever stopping to admire a sweeping or distant view.” She discovers the beauties of nature in the work of a high school teacher and Audubon’s book.
She writes to impart her own legacy to her nephew and granddaughter, and insists on telling them of that teacher whose passionate work “speaks of invention and imitation.” She wants them to regard his efforts and Audubon’s as surpassing what the camera can capture “because it’s art, I will say, somewhat flustered.” Art is more than recording; it is also creation, what springtime reminds humanity of every year. Art can—and presumably should—be as big as life.
This collection should remind readers of the treasure that Maureen Howard is to contemporary American fiction. She is an original who, with each work, seeks to outdo and reinvent herself. Big as Life is more proof of the major talent she possesses.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic Monthly 287 (May, 2001): 121.
Booklist 97 (April 15, 2001): 1534.
Library Journal 126 (May 1, 2001): 129.
Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2001, p. 4.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (July 1, 2001): 11.
Publishers Weekly 248 (April 23, 2001): 48.
Review of Contemporary Fiction 21 (Fall, 2001): 207.
The Washington Post Book World, May 20, 2001, p. 5.
Women’s Review of Books 19 (October, 2001): 12.
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