Tuesday, July 10, 2007

New Release Spotlight: The Life Room

The Life Room, by Jill Bialosky

Named for the classroom in which models sit for student artists, in which there is “a range of boxes and pedestals, ropes and poles, all of which can be used to extend your range of poses,” The Life Room examines thirty-eight-year-old Eleanor Cahn’s own contortions to express her true self as both passionate lover and academic and responsible and stable wife and mother.

Jill Bialosky is multi-talented in the world of the written word, editing for W. W. Norton, publishing two books of poetry, and completing this her second novel. Her prowess as a poet is evident in The Life Room. As with the snap of a stanza’s final line, her paragraphs often end with a lyrical, powerful thump to the heart and mind. On Eleanor’s mother’s feelings toward her runaway husband: “Elizabeth was strong and determined. Her terrible forgiveness had filled the rooms of Eleanor’s childhood.” And on Eleanor trying to quiet her racing mind: “Eleanor stopped and sat on a street bench in front of a church. She sat still in one place, looked at the intricate building, at its masonry, its magnificence, to quiet the unrest.” Bialosky also pays attention to senses often forgotten by the fiction writer, but perhaps not the poet. In one paragraph, the reader hears “the patter of his bare feet on the wood” and tastes, intriguingly, that “time had slowed down to just a morsel.”

For all of these intimate hooks, the characters remain at a distance from the reader, and for a novel tied up in internal struggles, that’s problematic. Stephen, William, Adam, and Michael, the loves of Eleanor’s life, speak only in riddles or philosophy, or short emotionless statements. While this explains their own walled-off natures and how Eleanor has struggled to connect with anyone, it also keeps the reader at bay. There was some respite in the second of the book’s four parts, which is an excerpt from Eleanor’s diary. Third-person narration can make as much of a connection to the reader as first-person journaling can, but in this case, one-fourth of the novel shined above the rest.

Cahn is a professor of literature, and comes to realize she is determined to create a life story that ends differently than the focus of her academic research, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. In a world that needs as many untraditional heroines as it can get, that’s a worthwhile enough reason to read this book.

Review by Kristin Thiel, Indigo Editing, LLC

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