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Wednesday, 27 July 2011 14:29

A sharp portrait of love, friendship and sisterhood

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Danielle Ganek’s The Summer We Read Gatsby (ISBN 978-0-670-02178-9, $28.95) tells the story of two half-sisters, Cassie, a translator for a Swiss lifestyle magazine, and Peck, an often-unemployed actress who loves vintage clothing, gossip, and parties. When their cherished Aunt Lydia dies, she leaves to the Moriarty sisters co-ownership of Fool’s House, the ramshackle home located in Long Island’s Hamptons, with instructions that they are to sell the house and split the proceeds.

In addition to spending a good bit of time wrangling over whether to follow through on these instructions — both young women entertain wonderful memories of the house and its magical place in their lives — Cassie and Peck also enter into a series of adventures together. Though Cassie is the narrator of the novel, it is Peck, the more vivacious of the two, who leads their excursions into literature, love, and art. Peck drags Cassie off to her beloved parties, revitalizes her in the morning with a pick-me-up, and introduces her to such ideas as the “dressing drink,” which is of course the drink taken while dressing for a party. After Peck is convinced that her old flame, Miles Noble, has invited her to a Gatsby party to win her back — he introduced her to Fitzgerald’s book — she spends most of the novel pursuing him while encouraging Cassie in her own love life. Other characters and situations intrude: the gay neighbor who watches over the girls with an avuncular eye; the eccentric houseguest; the theft of a painting, possibly the work of Jackson Pollock; the collection of eccentrics who mingle at the summer’s parties.

The Summer We Read Gatsby satisfies on every level. The plot is intriguing, holding our attention to the last pages, which offer several surprises. The characters are all finely drawn, particularly those of Cassie and Peck. Ganek makes both young women come alive on the page — Cassie as shy, a little aloof, reserved, and Peck as a sort of amiable “bad girl” who entertains the reader on every page on which she appears (the last four pages, in which Peck becomes the novel‘s narrator, will have the reader laughing aloud). Here, for example, is Peck on men and the great love of her life, Miles Noble:

“Men were always falling in love with Peck, or so she would tell me. And she did have a regal air that seemed to bring out the passion in even the mousiest littler creatures. But inevitably she’d come with several reasons to be disappointed. A passion for cats, for example. Or ordering a salad for dinner. Or the wrong sorts of shoes. “Tasseled loafers,” she would whisper into the phone, as if such a thing were so awful it couldn’t be voiced too loudly. It explained everything. Afterward, she’d always add, “Well, he was no Miles Noble.”

From the above we can discern the other strengths of Ganek’s writing and storytelling. In Cassie, she offers a warm voice that draws the reader into the story. Cassie, like nearly all good first-person narrators, puts us on her side, invites us rather than forces us to see life as she does. We also see Ganek’s ability to create a quick character study. For example, we leave this paragraph with a sizable image of Peck in mind; we can see her on the phone as she whispers to her caller.

Most importantly, there is a gaiety and insouciance that runs through Danielle Ganek’s book thatoften seems sadly absent from much fiction these days. Reading The Summer We Read Gatsby is as refreshing as a glass of lemonade during the recent heat wave — or better still, as one of Peck’s “dressing drinks.” With style, intelligence, and humor, Ganek explores the bonds of sisterhood, the debts we owe to the dead, the place of art and literature in our lives, the importance of friendship and the possibilities of love.

The Summer We Read Gatsby is a diamond of a book: sharply cut, glittering, lovely. Ganek is the author of another novel, Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him, and is at work on a third novel.

•••

If The Summer We Read Gatsby is like a tall cool drink, Susan Jacoby’s Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age (ISBN 978-0-307-37794-4, $27.95) is like a dash — for some people, better make that a bucketful — of cold water. Author of books like The Age of American Unreason and Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Jacoby here turns her gimlet eye on aging and on our response to it and to dying. She contrasts traditional attitudes toward aging and death to those of our own time, when we see all around us myths and fairy tales about how long we may live and how we may through different treatments defy the ravages of age. She reveals the various hucksters feeding off those who are approaching old age: the health food and vitamin gurus, the advocates of “staying young”, those who regard death as a “disease.“ She takes to task the baby-boomer obsession with the “youth culture” and offers at the end of the book the idea that growing old gracefully may mean simply allowing oneself to grow old.  

Though readers may argue with certain points of Never Say Die — Jacoby’s take on attitudes toward aging, for example, gets more than a little silly — and though some of us probably don’t need to read this book (I have only to glance in the mirror to certify that I am growing old), this book is nonetheless a powerful reminder that most of us will grow old, will feel old, will look old, and will eventually die. To those who deal with the undertaker and the grave about as well as the Victorians dealt with sex, Never Say Die offers a powerful reminder of the inevitability of death.

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