February 2013

Hannah Sheldon-Dean

fiction

Haunted Houses by Lynne Tillman

The first thing we learn about Grace is that she hates her dolls. She is certain that they come alive while she sleeps at night and "say terrible things about her." For Grace, Jane, and Emily, the three young protagonists of Haunted Houses, no relationship is simple, not even in childhood, not even with toys. Lynne Tillman's novel -- originally published in 1987 and recently reissued by Red Lemonade -- follows each of the three girls along the outwardly straight path from childhood through late teenage years, moving from one to the other in parallel alternating chapters.

Grace loves animals, fights constantly with her mother, and grows into a willfully promiscuous teenager who "pride[s] herself on being reckless." Jane is a daddy's girl through and through, preoccupied with remembering everything and ambivalent about sex. Emily is beautiful and retiring; she frustrates her friends and boyfriends with a constant desire to "return to her small room and read." Taken together, they seem to have been pieced together out of a box of paper-doll parts of suburban lives; a pair of sisters here, a bad boyfriend there. Their conflicts are small and familiar, and their storylines stray far from the rising action-climax-falling action structure of many coming-of-age novels. But though their narratives never intersect, Tillman threads the three girls together thematically and atmospherically, fitting them into each other to create a whole that sharply reflects the multifaceted reality of American girlhood.

Nothing in this novel is direct. Rather, Tillman provides all of the raw materials in the girls' lives -- families, apartments, bodies -- and lets them cast their shadows how they will, giving her characters space to examine those trappings and stopping just short of telling the reader what to think. They go to school, get jobs, quit school, and change apartments without any great sense of consequence; the girls are trying on the accessories of life and seeing how they look. The protagonists' families shape them in ways they accept without question; Tillman writes that "as the youngest in her family, Jane never expected to become the oldest anywhere."

In romantic matters, too, the girls' stories share a passive and undramatic quality. Grace sleeps with people she meets in bars and doesn't worry about it, while Jane has a hard time feeling much attraction for any man and thinks of losing her virginity as "something that had to be overcome, or at least gotten over, like a headache or a bad toothache." Throughout the novel, love and sex are constant influences, and yet they remain on the sidelines; they're not the core of growing up for Emily, Jane, and Grace.

If the protagonists are the haunted houses, then the ghosts are the myriad other versions of themselves that float in and out of their lives. Their relationships with best friends are passionate, complex, and frighteningly ephemeral. Emily and her childhood best friend are described as "as close as two girls could be," but just pages later, the friend is getting married and, "for some reason or other, Emily didn't go to the wedding." The girls' mothers confuse matters further, offering visions of womanhood that their daughters both aspire to and abhor. Perhaps the healthiest friendship in the book is one that manages to skirt the traditional structures of female relationship: that of Emily and her kind older landlady, a woman who enjoys Emily's company "especially because Emily could have been her daughter and wasn't."

As Emily, Jane, and Grace age, they find that it's not only present-day women and girls whose identities overlap mistily with their own. Each is subject, in her own way, to the influence of past versions of femininity. Emily reads every biography she can find on great women; Grace immerses herself in the life of Marilyn Monroe as she prepares to play her onstage; nervous about a first sexual encounter, Jane says that she "[has] a headache, as if she had memorized a Victorian manual written for skittish brides." All three are voracious readers, eager to incorporate history and literature into their ideas of themselves. Those childhood dolls, talking about them, remain in the backs of their minds.

Womanhood, by the end of the novel, becomes almost a character itself, both ancient and immediate. Rather than gain definition as their stories move forward, the three girls seem to get increasingly fuzzy around the edges, overlaid as they are with each other and with every girl they've ever met. Instead of becoming more certain of who they are, they become less so, and that's what makes Tillman's vision of maturity feel so startling and authentic. Though a few chapters drag and the ending may seem abrupt, the protagonists' inner lives are revealed with such elegance and precision that the novel as a whole feels profound without ever getting weighty. Considering the words "sum of my parts," Jane thinks: "A person could be added to or subtracted from, or a person could add up to anything. Or not." Ultimately, Tillman leaves the conclusions to the reader.

Haunted Houses by Lynne Tillman
Red Lemonade
ISBN: 978-1935869047
192 pages