The mid-1970’s witnessed the birth in the United States of a new genre of nonfiction literature: the disgruntled memoirs of a celebrity’s offspring. From Brooke Hayward’s Haywire (1977) to Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest (1978) to Angelica Garnett’s Deceived with Kindness (1984), daughters of distinguished mothers have tried to dismantle, or at least analyze, the public and private personae of their famous relatives and in the process to squeeze themselves into the spotlight. Inspired perhaps by this dubious if fascinating phenomenon, Carole Maso has written a highly literary first novel about a fictional poet, written in the first person by the woman’s daughter. Unlike her counterparts in real life, however, this daughter is inspired to write not by resentment or frustration but by a love so obsessive that it threatens to undermine the girl’s very existence. Ghost Dance is a novel about a young woman living in the shadow of her mother’s greatness, trying to accept her mother’s death by spinning out a fanciful, not-always-factual family history.
The reader is introduced to Christine Wing, the poet, and Vanessa Turin, her daughter, in a scene at New York’s Grand Central Station in the midst of the Christmas holidays. Christine has just returned from a month’s vacation in Maine; Vanessa is on her way back to Vassar College for the winter semester. Christine seems distracted, oblivious to the time of day and the snowy weather outside. Vanessa is rapt, almost worshipful in her mother’s presence. Nothing particularly eventful happens during the course of the scene, yet it becomes compellingly surreal as Vanessa, disturbed by her mother’s gaudy appearance, strips her of her jewelry and as Christine, urging Vanessa to leave, whispers that she loved her even before she was born. It is clear that Vanessa, in describing the scene, is distorting it, imbuing it with a charged, desperate, romantic emotion, the reasons for which at this point remain unspecified.
During the course of the novel, Vanessa haltingly, circuitously explains the significance of that scene for her. Little in this book is told directly; everything is built up through allusion and repetition, until the facts spill out almost in spite of Vanessa. Initially, the reader learns only that Christine has apparently disappeared; that Vanessa’s father has also vanished, leaving brochures in his car describing icy fjords; that her brother has taken to traveling around the country and mailing angry postcards alluding to various social injustices. During the course of the novel, however, the process of telling proves therapeutic for Vanessa. By the book’s conclusion, she is able to confront (and communicate) the real reason for Christine’s “disappearance”: her death in a car accident a few days after that scene in Grand Central Station.
In segments which vary in length, Vanessa jumps back and forth from the distant past to the present day, touching on varied times and topics that all somehow tie back to her immediate family. Repeating scenes and motifs, building in intensity as Vanessa approaches nearer and nearer to the truth, the novel is structured musically rather than narratively. One of its central symbols is the Topaz Bird, a family metaphor for divine inspiration described by Christine to her young daughter. According to Christine, certain members of her mother’s family were visited by this bird and thereafter showed glimmerings of genius bordering at times on insanity. Christine claims to have been privileged to see this bird at birth, and her daughter yearns for a glimpse of it, well aware that such a vision would be a mixed blessing.
While learning the Wing family mythology, the reader is provided a more concrete idea of Christine’s past. The poet grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, the daughter of an Armenian factory worker and a sickly German-American mother who died while she was still a child. She and her sister, Lucy, led a deprived childhood, enjoying nothing so much as the travel brochures their father would read to them. Nevertheless, Christine managed to attend Vassar, where signs of her literary genius appeared early. She began publishing her renowned volumes of verse while just out of college.
It was at Vassar that Christine met Vanessa’s father, the son of Italian immigrants, a mathematician from Princeton University attending a Vassar dance. As Vanessa describes it, her father fell in love with her mother at first sight. In her glorifying eyes, their marriage becomes an analogue for the marriage of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier of Monaco. In this poetically conceived novel, it is not surprising that Christine Wing will eventually succumb to the same fate as Princess Grace, dying in an automobile accident.
The Turins’ marriage turns out to be a most unconventional one. While Christine publishes several brilliant volumes of verse, her husband pursues a colorless career as a stockbroker, devoting himself utterly to nurturing his wife. Christine seems to return his love, but her distinguished poetry does not come without a price. Occasionally, the Topaz Bird pays a visit, and Christine’s otherworldly calm gives way to what appears, in Vanessa’s anxious...
(The entire section is 2157 words.)