Saturday, August 13, 2011

Bright Before Us, by Katie ARnold-Ratliff

I was surprised to find that Bright Before Us is something of a mirror image of To Be Sung Underwater, which I wrote about in my last entry. Bright Before Us is written by a woman, from the viewpoint of a male protagonist, a man who is caught between his present life as a teacher and husband and his memories of an earlier love. Hmmm.

There are some significant differences, however. Francis Mason is only 23, and he was married to the past love he's pining for only a year or so before the events described in the book. And Francis's issues make Judith Whitman seem like a model of mental health.

As the book opens, Francis, two parent chaperones, and his second-graders are doing a field study at the beach on a Friday afternoon. Then some of the students stumble on a body, and Francis completely loses his composure, screaming and sobbing as the children watch in horror. When Francis gets home that night, he lies to his wife Greta, telling her that the students saw the woman jump from the Golden Gate Bridge; the next day, he tells her the woman was his former girlfriend (Greta doesn't know they were married), Nora. He medicates himself and sleeps through Sunday; Monday, he returns to school, still over-medicated and clearly not long for the classroom--though he manages to do some further damage to the children in his care before he takes his leave.

As Francis drives his present life into the ditch, we also read his recollections of his relationship with Nora, which he managed to destroy just hours after they married. While his childhood was clearly difficult and shaped his adult persona, it's difficult to have sympathy for Francis, who makes bad decision followed by bad decision, often fueled by alcohol or medication. Though on the book's last page Francis claims, "I will change," it's difficult to believe his destructive personality and inability to maintain a relationship will truly change. In fact, one feels dread for his unborn child, who seems almost assured of become yet another generation damaged by his parents.

Arnold-Ratliff writes beautifully. Perhaps I enjoyed To Be Sung Underwater more because the main character was more relatable to me (female, not fresh out of college). Perhaps had Francis been less callow, he would have evoked more (well, any) sympathy from me. I'd be interested to hear if this book resonates more with readers not eligible for AARP membership. Still, I'll definitely read Arnold-Ratliff's next book to see how she follows this debut novel.

Favorite passages:
I secured a job in the struggling district with unsettling ease, and began looking for holes in the prescribed curriculum that I could fill with art, the People's History, the teaching of tolerance. At home, I practiced finger painting, free-association writing, explosive science experiments, a segment on cooking. I swore I would take my students outside no matter the season; we would do a unit on international sports, like jai alai and cricket. I would teach them the silly camp songs of my young--Fish and chips and vinegar, vinegar, vinegar. I stood in front of the medicine cabinet mirror and practiced my enthusiastic lectures, my voice low so Greta wouldn't hear me from the bedroom. I perfected faces to use when they spoke, so they would know that I was really, truly listening to them.

The story for me to know is the one I made, crafted from the raw materials of failure. I pulled at the tethers of my life, resisting them like a child. I built that story with every word I used to wound, every lie I erected.

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