I finished this book about a week ago and have thought of it off and on since then, and I’m still not entirely sure what I want to say about it. There were times when I thought it was incredibly moving and insightful, times when I thought it dragged a bit, times when I loved what it had to say about families, and times when I got annoyed because I couldn’t keep the minor characters straight. I suppose ultimately I don’t think this is a perfect book, but it offered a lot ot think about.
The story is a harsh one, and I was drawn to it for that reason. It has a tone I don’t often find in women writers (although I won’t pretend to have done an exhaustive survey) — blunt, dark, bleak, and open about the harsher and seedier aspects of life. It’s not a hopeless book, but it’s one that won’t let you forget how much people can suffer. I wouldn’t want to read sad books like this one all the time, but now and then I find I want to read someone who looks directly at the harsher, uglier sides of life.
The first-person narrator is Alison, a woman in her forties who ekes a living out of part-time jobs. While she once was beautiful, the hard life she has lived has worn her down, and she now has hepatitis and suffers from a damaged arm that gets in the way of the cleaning job she tries to hold on to. The novel follows Alison through the course of one day as she walks to work and then to a friend’s house, and finally to the woods just outside her city in California. Lengthy flashbacks tell the story of Alison’s youth and young adulthood.
Alison became a model at a very young age and found herself swept up into a world where beautiful young women care so much about having great careers and becoming famous super-models that they are willing to do whatever it takes to live out their dreams, and male agents and photographers take full advantage of all the opportunities for sexual exploitation this provides. It’s a life full of money, glamour, drugs, parties, and casual sex. Alison heads to France where her modeling career really takes off, as a fabulously wealthy and powerful agent takes her on as his girlfriend. Her family back home in New Jersey has little idea what Alison has gotten herself into, but they are too passive and caught up in their own troubles to do anything to bring Alison home.
Alison’s meteoric rise is followed by a catastrophic fall as her boyfriend rejects her and she returns home to New Jersey to become a student again and try to turn her life around. She moves to New York to work at temp jobs and to try to work her way back into the modeling world, with only partial success. It’s in one of her temp jobs that she meets Veronica, a woman significantly older than Alison is, and who bewilders Alison with her brash attitude and her outlandish taste in clothing. The two become friends, improbably, and although Alison doesn’t quite understand why she is drawn to Veronica and she sometimes fails to be a good friend to her, the two stay in touch. When Alison finds out Veronica has AIDS, she becomes even more important in her life.
Veronica seems an unlikely character to name the book after, since there are long sections of the book that don’t concern her at all, and we aren’t introduced to her until after we have been reading for a while. But it’s Alison’s friendship with Veronica that provides a center to her story; she is a question the story picks at again and again as Alison tries to figure out what Veronica has meant to her. From her perspective as a more mature woman looking back on her life, it turns out that Veronica has meant a great deal.
There is a lot of beauty in the writing here; Gaitskill describes Alison’s habit of thinking about her life through music particularly well, and although she is distanced from her father, this is something they share. For both of them music is a way of trying to communicate the longings they can’t find words to express. The entire book feels like an effort to express those things that are so hard to put into words. Alison tries to understand the experiences that have shaped her life, but sometimes the most she can do is to ask questions, to speculate, and to marvel at what has happened.
At times the pacing felt uneven, and the minor characters come and go without much definition and sometimes without much interest, but still, there is much to enjoy and contemplate here.