Margarettown by Gabrielle Zevin
The complexity of women is at the heart of Gabrielle Zevin’s first novel Margarettown, an off-kilter boy-meets-girl story with a fantastical element. Handsome, blue-blooded N meets regular girl Maggie Towne at University where they fall in love. When N drives Maggie home after the school term is over, he ends up spending the summer in her unique home, Margaron. Maggie is from Margarettown, location somewhere upstate, population between one and six, depending. The only inhabitants of Margarettown are Maggie’s family Marge, Mia, Old Margaret, and May. The shadow of doomed Greta also resides there, years after her death by suicide. Old Margaret is in her dotage, Marge is middle-aged and cranky, Mia is a surly teen, Maggie is a twenty-something nymph, and May is a playful child. Get it? Women are complicated.
The story of the Margarets and Margarettown is being related to Jane, N and Maggie’s daughter, in a letter that N writes as he is dying. N wants Jane to understand who her mother was, all of the whos. His telling is somewhat disjointed and certainly one-sided but he wants his daughter to know his love for all of the Margarets that his beloved Maggie was. We also hear from Maggie herself as she turns into a new incarnation, Meg, while she explores the validity of her marriage and love for N. Some of the events of this time are later told by N in the letters to his daughter so some he-said-she-said perspective is gained.
Both Maggie and N die and leave Jane in the care of her prosaic Aunt Bess, who is many Elizabeths herself:
And if you cared to look, you would find I have an Elizabethtown in me. Oh yes, little brother, your ordinary sister, your everyday Bess has about ten women in her, too. I was born Elizabeth, but no one ever called me that. When I was a girl, you may remember, I was Lizzie. When I was a teenager, I was Liz. When I went to college, I became Bee, which I have been more or less for the last twenty years or so. Except when I am feeling very bold. On those days I am Eliza. And then, when I am feeling very meek, I’m Beth. I hate those days. Of course, to you my brother, I have always been plain old Bess.
As Jane grows, reads her father’s letters and starts asking questions about her parents and their relationship, she learns about all of the Janes that she is.
Zevin uses the gimmick of many Margarets to great advantage in the first section of the book when it is still unclear if this is reality or fantasy. That question is never fully addressed and in the end by Aunt Bess tells Jane that her father was on a lot of medication at the end and wasn’t himself. Were there really six Margarets? Was Maggie just a troubled young woman? We don’t really know. Women are complicated.
N never really understood any of the women in his life: his sister Bess, his ex-fiancé Libby, his wife Maggie, and if he had lived, he certainly wouldn’t have understood his daughter Jane. This is a pitiable circumstance for poor N, but there is not enough meat to it to sustain a novel. It feels like a short story that spiraled out of control and things like the inexplicable in-utero conversations between twins, one doomed and one strong, were thrown in as filler. It is an unusual twist on a traditional story and while much of Zevin’s writing is strong and fine, in end it is not quite enough.
Margarettown by Gabrielle Zevin