Literary hero Joan Didion once wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The traditions and stories of this week’s Thanksgiving holiday remind us that humans need stories and mythologies on the personal, social and national level to define ourselves, even if not all of them are true. In fact, it often seems we prefer our stories to be myths; larger than life, emotionally satisfying, prioritizing drama over truth. The three novels in this week’s book club are examples of the stories we tell about ourselves, and they’re all richly worth telling.
1. Victoria by Daisy Goodwin ($18): There are very few who are more mythologized than members of the Royal Family, especially the ones who lived before constant media access became de rigeur. If you’re not paying attention, Queen Victoria’s character is often stereotyped as dour and unforgiving, but there’s every evidence she never actually spoke her famous words, “We are not amused,” and in fact had a wicked sense of humor.
The tiny, stubborn, four-foot-eleven dynamo became queen at 18 (her first royal decree was to have an hour to herself!). She then used her queenly privilege to propose to her husband Prince Albert, survived six assassination attempts and generally ruled, bringing popularity back to the monarchy. She became England’s longest-reigning monarch until Queen Liz surpassed her last year. Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria presents a headstrong teenage queen eager to make the best use of her power, disappointing those who would have pulled her strings behind the scenes: “when the time came, thought Victoria, she would never allow herself to be trapped.”
“Victoria did not have a clear idea of what being Queen would mean,” Goodwin writes of her teenage heroine. “No one could tell her what a queen actually did all day.” Goodwin simultaneously wrote Victoria’s story as both a novel and a screenplay, the latter hitting PBS next January. In this unique coming-of-age story, one taking place on the world’s largest stage, Victoria must deal with her teenage crush on the Prime Minister, her tempestuous relationship with her mother and the “prig” Albert who’s shown up at her door from Germany. It’s an origin myth, but it’s also romantic, passionate and royal fun.
2. Moonglow by Michael Chabon ($17): Michael Chabon has given us plenty of history-writing, mythologizing, world-building treasures, from The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to Telegraph Avenue to the alternate universe of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Here, he gets personal, spinning a tale about his grandfather in the style of a faux memoir, and adopting a persona, a fictionalized version of himself, as narrator. Chabon’s grandparents were the family mystery to him in his youth; his grandfather having spent time both in the army (as an officer in World War II) and in prison, and his grandmother unwilling to talk about her survival of the Holocaust.
Inspired by a trip home in 1989, in which his terminally ill grandfather suddenly opened up his locked box of memory under the influence of painkillers, Chabon details the myths and stories he does know, trying to flesh them out with speculation on why his grandfather did these things, and what effect it all had on his grandmother, a horror movie show host whose experiences during the war left her with irreparable mental scarring. Thematically, the work is structured around the stories we tell ourselves and others to get through life, and the book is full of them, from Chabon’s grandfather’s attempt to strangle a business partner with a telephone cord, to his life as a Nazi hunter, to a bizarre prank involving explosives and a Washington DC bridge.
“In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it,” Chabon writes. “Whenever liberties have been taken… the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon.” A.O. Scott calls Moonglow a “beautiful” book; Keats may have said “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” but in this case, it’s carefully massaged and arranged truth that carries the glow, more a student of Oscar Wilde’s theory that “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
3. Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz ($12): “Ghosts ought to have been my specialty. There were enough dearly departed in my family to haunt a dozen Gothic novels, and if I never stopped to listen for a telling knock or squinted through the darkness for a hazy outline, it was only because doubt flowed through my veins more palpably than the blood of any continent.” Mythology thrives on national and cultural identity, but when you’re caught between more than one world, you’ve got to write your own tale. Beena and Sadhana Singh, sisters born to an Irish-American mother and a Punjabi-Sikh father, live in Montreal above their family’s business, (for extra multiculturalism, it’s a bagel shop).
In this debut full-length novel from Canadian author Saleema Nawaz, a selection of the Canada Reads program, the girls face many obstacles coming to terms with each other and their own issues, as they deal with racism, mental illness and loss. In relatively quick succession, their father dies, arson threatens their home and their mother succumbs to a family meal gone wrong, leaving them alone at 16 and 14 to be raised by their less-than-stable uncle. Previously “greedy” for the unconventional love story of their parents, the sisters now have to create their own stories and strictures to have any hope of surviving.
The narration, full of soul-searching, shows us Beena’s struggle with an unexpected pregnancy and Sadhana’s with anorexia in flashback, beginning eighteen years later after another tragedy spurs reflection. “In the past six months we’ve been like bad reproductions of ourselves, our conversations only shadow plays of the dialogues we used to have,” Beena says. The loss of story is the loss of self; in empathizing with the stories of others, we can find our own.
What’s your personal mythology? Tag us in your next great story @BritandCo.
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(Feature photo via Getty)