April 2009

Jane Hamilton

Sex, lies and email
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Fans of Jane Hamilton, and there are many, know her for her provocative, heartbreaking dramas and her unique Midwestern sensibility. In novels like The Book of Ruth and Map of the World (both selections of Oprah’s Book Club), Hamilton plumbed the depths of the human psyche, creating haunting portraits of families in crisis.

Were she not such a daring writer, her readers might be surprised by her latest work, a comedy of (bad) manners, entitled Laura Rider’s Masterpiece.

A frisky romp of a book, Laura Rider marks a definite departure for this author. That’s not to say that her other books lack humorous moments, but this one is a walk on the light side.

On a recent call to her Wisconsin home, where she lives in an 1870s farmhouse on an apple orchard with her husband, Hamilton laughs, “This one has a more streamlined plot—it has a plot. I don’t think my other books have plots . . . so that was a fun thing for me.”

That plot goes something like this: Laura and Charlie Rider have been married for 12 years. Together they operate Prairie Wind Farm, a nursery they built in picturesque Wisconsin. Although Charlie’s ardent libido and bedroom acrobatics have driven Laura to swear off sex forever, they are happy enough—until Jenna Faroli, host of a popular radio show and Laura’s idol, moves to the small town. Jenna and Charlie’s paths cross, and an email correspondence, and later an affair, ensues. All the while Laura not only encourages and monitors their intimate email dialogue but participates in it as she conducts “research” for the romance novel she hopes to write. Things quickly spiral out of control as bonds are formed and boundaries crossed.

Much of the humor in the book lies in the flowery language of Jenna and Charlie’s (and Laura’s) courtship. In an email with the subject line “Dream come true?” Charlie writes, “Because I often imagine you walking along the grape arbor, I cannot be sure if it was you, or if I was tricking myself. Either way, vision or reality your presence is a joy to me.” How this almost childlike, unsophisticated man ends up wooing an intellectual giant like Jenna is part of the fun.

As far as her own research goes when creating the character Jenna, Hamilton says, “I’ve been on a lot of radio shows through the years and in a lot of studios.” Jenna might resemble a cross between Terry Gross and Diane Rehm, but, Hamilton assures us the character isn’t based on anyone in particular.
On the delicate task of writing about sex, and there’s plenty of it in this novel, Hamilton says, “Sex scenes are always hard. They have to reveal character; they can’t be over the top. An ideal love scene should be discreet yet revealing.” She manages to strike this balance with scenes that are alternately amusing and poignant.

A harmonic convergence of sorts happened to bring Laura Rider into being. “More than anything that I’ve ever written, it truly wrote itself. I felt like I wrote it in 37-1/2 seconds,” she says. When we ask why she thinks that is, Hamilton responds, “It was a gift from . . . whatever.” Could it be from the Silver People, we wonder (the alien life forms that Charlie believes abducted him as a child; Charlie might have a certain charm, but he’s an odd one). Well, from somewhere beyond.

Also, during the period between 2000 and 2004, Hamilton worked on a book she ended up having to abandon. “Maybe [Laura Rider] was just cosmic reparation for that harrowing experience,” she says. “2001 happened in there, and it just seemed like a frivolous thing to be writing a drawing room drama, a family drama, about people concerned about their own little worries.” Many writers and artists have, of course, struggled with this very issue, and responded in varying ways. Hamilton goes on, “I guess the embarrassing thing for me was that [the novel] was going to be dead on arrival.” She briefly entertained changing careers but “decided I would make it the best failure I could. . . . It was a long, dreary episode.” Fortunately, Laura Rider was at the end of it.

When she wrote Laura Rider, Hamilton says that she was also taking care of her mother in assisted living, and “was in dire need of amusement. . . . It was a life saver.” The timing couldn’t be better considering that, collectively, we could all use a bit of amusement, and this novel delivers it. But the original inspiration for this book, aside for the need for some levity, was a Caribbean cruise where Hamilton taught a writing workshop. She’d never before been on a cruise and was, well, surprised—and aghast.

“There were lovely people and interesting students, but I was freshly incredulous with this crowd; many of them seemed never to have read a book, or to be aware that there was a print culture, and yet were so earnest in their wish to be published and to write.”

“I just got home and thought, what would that feel like, to want to do this thing that you actually have no preparation to do and you don’t know that you don’t have the preparation to do it.”

Thus, the birth of Laura Rider, who fancies herself an emerging writer in an age where everyone thinks they’re artists. There’s a certain presumptuousness or over-confidence in that, proclaiming one’s self a writer, which rankles Hamilton. Though the book is all in good fun, it does raise some interesting questions, namely what does it mean to be an artist? Hamilton, citing a recent New York Times article, says, “There are more people writing novels than reading them.” As Jenna says in the novel, quoting George Bernard Shaw, “Hell is filled with amateur musicians.” In Laura’s defense, however, Hamilton does believe that we all have stories to tell.

And of course, Hamilton tells hers exceedingly well. She has succeed in writing a biting—or perhaps in this case, ear-nibbling—satire that is a rollicking read. It is at once acerbic and forgiving, though she admits, “This book feels a little snarky to me, but what are you going to do?” She adds, “I wish I could write it all over again.” We wish we could read it all over again, too.

Katherine Wyrick writes from Little Rock.

Get the Book

Laura Rider’s Masterpiece

Laura Rider’s Masterpiece

By Jane Hamilton
Grand Central
ISBN 9780446538954

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