Fans of Alice Fulton's poetry (bibliography) will find much to admire. A similar
lyricism, use of imagery, facts and curiosities abound, from Kitty painting
veins on her face with French chalk and Prussian blue* to the scent of vintage
perfumes. The details evoke a uniquely feminine culture. But for all the book's
poetic merits, it also stands on its own as a selection of stories spanning the
lives of seven memorable women.
Tempting as it is to read The Nightingales of Troy as a novel, it isn't meant to be. There is no device like the four sides of the mahjong table in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, no pivotal family event, memory or point-of-view linking everything together. The stories should not be read with the expectation of perfect symmetrysome of the women's voices are heard only once, while others, like Charlotte, become essential players in several stories. Rather than relying on a single, over-arching narrative, the stories connect through their themes.
Some stories can be read as companion pieces. "Queen Wintergreen" touches on aging, as does "L'Air Du Temps". A nurse in the title story later becomes a patient. One story features birth, another, death. The most powerful of these pairings"A Shadow Table" and "Centrally Isolated"hammer one of the more heartbreaking points home: "you could get hurt while serving others."
You'll find a range of women within these domestic spheres. Dorothy, a mid-century woman, aspires to save towards a "Magic Chef range and Eureka vacuum cleaner, a husband and kids". She's a contrast to Mamie, her mother, who is portrayed as being a more level-headed, less conventional woman. In one scene, Mamie, now "FULLY DELIGHTED" (a charming, peculiar euphemism for being dilated) marches towards the bed where Kitty is sleeping. "See here, Clara Lazarus," she says, "It's time to rise from the dead. I need streetcar courtesy. I have to push this baby out." And she does, with every hope that her daughter will lead a different life.
This combination of frailty and steeliness, of service and independence, sainthood and aplomb, appears throughout the book. The differences between the more subdued women and their more take-charge counterparts provide rich material for social and psychological inquiries.
The expected, if familiar, outcome would have been to portray women earlier in the century as repressed, and the most modern, educated woman of them all, Ruth, as the liberated go-getter, but these women do not fit simple preconceptions. Ruth has her self-doubts, and even indulges in a little victimhood as she complains about the ruthlessness of her chosen profession. The surprising fact that it isn't a linear progression rings more true. Mavericks exist in any generation. It isn't always the current one that has the best to offer.
The world presented here is a dark one, punctuated as it is with madness, a drowning, hospitalization, unfulfilled desires, and an unhappy marriage, but realism is never used for the sake of preventing nostalgia, and never overwhelms. Moments of genuine humor are juxtaposed with seriousness. Though you may find yourself wishing the characters would emerge unscarred, happiness is not found in the avoidance of pain. It's found, wisely, in the midst of itthrough the loyalty of sisterhood and through the honoring of the past as an ever-present force.
Alice Fulton's debut would appeal to any reader fascinated by the evolution of women's roles throughout the past, or to those who enjoy stories about love in its many guises. The stories succeed beautifully in drawing the world inhabited by these "Nightingales of Troy", who, like Florence Nightingale, minister to those around them.
*French chalk is a type of talc (hydrated magnesium silicate) used by tailors for marking cloth, by cleaners for removing grease from cloth, and as a dry lubricant in a number of applications including many bicycle repair kits. Prussian blue is a very dark blue, colorfast, non-toxic pigment, so named because it was first extensively used to dye the uniforms of the Prussian army. One of the first synthetic dyes, it was discovered accidentally in Berlin in 1704.
This review was originally published in August 2008, and has been updated for the July 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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