Friday, May 1, 2009

I See You Everywhere

I'm a bit at a loss at how to describe my experience of I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass.  It is, in many ways, a novel that surprises and yet doesn't satisfy. 

Take the title, for instance.   I knew that it was a story of sisters and when I first started reading and discovered it was in the first person I assumed that it was going to be a memoir-like novel written by one sister about her relationship with the other sister who was no longer around (was missing or dead or otherwise estranged).

But ...

When I got to Chapter Two i discovered that, while still in the first person, it was written in the voice of the other sister.  And we all know the rule that if something is written in the first person the character must still be around to tell the story - which isn't much of a rule since it is always being broken (think the William Holden character in the film sunset Sunset Boulevard) but is still the type of rule that lulls you into a sense of complacency.  So I thought maybe the novel was just a prolonged study of the thoughts of two sisters towards each other - and that the title was just not a very good title.  And that kind of bothered me through the first part of the novel.

For a while I even thought the title must have something to do with the dead old aunt who is the subject of the first chapter.  But she pretty much disappears from the story after the first chapter.  (Which was a shame, I think an entire novel could be written about her.)  But after chapters of it bothering me it is THEN revealed that the title is a play on words (I won't tell you what).  So that was that, I thought, very relieved to have that mystery solved.  Except then ... well, I won't give away too much.  

As I said, the novel is the story of two adult sisters over a very long period: Louise (the older) and Clem (the younger).   Truthfully I didn't find either one very likeable and they didn't seem to particularly like each other, although they loved each other in their own way I suppose.  It was, in many ways, a truthful depiction of two sisters who are competitive but where there is nothing in their lives over which they REALLY have to compete, except perhaps the attention of their parents. 

Louise and Clem are very different from each other.  Louise is artistic.  She starts out as a potter but ends as a writer for an art magazine.  Clem is interested in the outdoors and nature and saving wild animals.  Through most of the novel the two sisters don't live in the same part of the country so their interactions have that "visitor" feel - much different than the relationship of people who live in the same city I think. 

Although the story shifts back and forth through much of the book, Louise gets more time and she was the one I liked the least.  Although ... I could relate to her on many levels.  But just when I'd be thinking that I did relate to her she would do or think something that would push me away.  I think it was her focus on objects that annoyed me the most.  In the first chapter she is focused on claiming a cameo pin from her aunt's estate.  Now, I know that perhaps subconsciously the cameo was simply the excuse to come back and reconcile with her sister - but that is never made clear so maybe it wasn't.   And then later at a very inappropriate moment she starts to think of her possible inheritance from her parents and how being an only child would make the estate easier.  I found myself appalled at that, but I think I was supposed to be. Clem was easier for me to read, but I never really understood her.  And both of them are unreliable narrators because neither really sees herself as she really is (which is natural) and each has a view of the other that is skewed through years of sibling rivalry.

It may also have been the structure of the novel that kept me at a distance.  Through most of the novel the action shifts, chapter by chapter, between the two sisters and each chapter takes place about three years after the previous chapter.  This means that each chapter forced me to really have to refocus - on a different person in a different time while the questions of the previous chapter weren't wholly answered.  Toward the end of the novel this pattern breaks, but the break is almost disconcerting - and maybe it is intended to be that way.  The chapters were short enough that I decided to take this book with me and read it at lunch, and I think that was a mistake.  I think this novel was more complex than I anticipated at the beginning and it would have benefited from being read all in one sitting.

Through most of the novel I felt very detached from both sisters.  As I said, I didn't like them all that much.  And as each went through a major health crisis I didn't feel any more attached.  And then the story took an unexpected turn (at least to me it was wholly unexpected) and I had to stop reading it at lunch because I unexpectedly found myself crying so hard that I had to go take a walk and pull myself together before I could go back to work.  But once I was finished with that particular chapter I went back to feeling detached.

So, as I say, it left me at a bit of a loss.