Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas

When I was nine years old my best friend asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her I wanted to be an author. In a few years, I was writing stories and then poetry. I tried to get published for a while, then didn't try but kept writing. Then the poems dried up.

What happened? Life. Marriage, jobs because we needed money, a child.

"If I told you the whole story it would never end...What's happened to me has happened to a thousand woman."--Ferderico Garcia Lorca, Dona Rosita la Soltera: The Language of Flowers
This quote appears at the beginning of The Resurrection of Joan Ashbyalong with a quote from Olive Schreiner advising "live for that one thing" which is your aim in life. I recognized the story. I am one of the thousands who did not 'live for one thing.' But I do not regret my decision to put love first.

Joan Ashby, the heroine of Cherise Wolas' novel, was sidetracked away from her 'one thing,' that which she was born to be, which she had single-mindedly worked for and achieved before she allowed her life to be claimed by others and their needs.

This is the story of how Joan allowed love to determine who she was, and how love betrayed her, and the journey that brought her back to herself.

Within pages, I was mesmerized by Wolas' writing. The beginning of the novel recalled to mind an old movie, like Citizen Kane, with clips of news stories giving one an idea of the person they are going to explore. The novel begins with an article in Literature Magazine entitled "(Re)Introducing Joan Ashby" in which we learn that Joan was a prize-winning writer in her early twenties, a genius, but that it has been three decades since she last published. Next, we read several of Ashby's stories and excerpts from an interview with Joan.

"Love was more than simply inconvenient; it's consumptive nature always a threat to serious women." Joan Ashby 
When Joan meets Martin Manning she tells him right away that her writing will always come first and that she has no need to be a mother. Martin is smitten and appears to support her wholeheartedly. But when two months after their marriage Joan finds she is pregnant, Martin tells her, "I've never been so happy."

Martin makes her happy. Does Joan grant him this baby, which obviously will lead to another child? Or should she hold fast to her commitment and dedication to her art, have an abortion, even if it means losing her newly wed husband?

The decisions Joan makes over the next thirty years put her husband and children's needs before her own artistic life. She does love them, but they take everything she has and offer back little.

She feels a kinship with quiet Daniel and his love of books and story telling, but who opts for an unsuitable career. Eric is brilliant, testing the limits, achieving early success which he cannot handle. She is drained by their need, while longing to return to the one thing she wanted and needed above all else: the solitude of the creative life.

After a horrible betrayal, Joan packs up and leaves her life behind to find out who she is and what it is she wants. In India, practicing yoga, Joan contemplates her marriage and her children, and the role of motherhood in all its manifestations, slowly growing into an understanding of how she wants to spend the rest of her life.  The 500+ page book, for me, slows in this last third as Joan goes on an internal journey, including sections of the novel she is writing.

Joan's passivity and inability to carve out what she needed is a great part of her failed life. She is not completely a likable character when she accuses her husband of selfishness, for she did not stand up for herself and give him a chance to accommodate her needs. Their lack of communication indicates a flawed marriage. And Joan's need for secrecy about her writing life, novels and stories written in hours when she was alone, ends up harmful.

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby is an outstanding debut. I adored the nontraditional story telling which incorporated Joan's stories. The theme of the female artist's struggle to combine love and work will appeal to many women. I will be thinking about this book for a long time, and expect I will return to read portions as I grapple with my understanding of Joan.

I thank the publisher for a free ARC in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby
Cherise Wolas
Flatiron Books
Publication August 29, 2017
Hardcover $27.99
ISBN: 9781250081438

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