Making a Close CallSeptember 23, 2011
Five Reasons to Love Korean FoodOctober 11, 2011
Human beings are funny creatures. Case in point: Have you ever had the kind of morning that was 85% puppies and rainbows, and 15% Dear-Lord-I-feel-like-screaming-until-my-face-turns-blue? And have you ever proceeded to focus on that 15%, at the expense of the rest? Or what about getting praise from coworkers or clients on a project, and yet the thing that nags at you is the one critical piece of feedback you received? Normally, I’d be more than inclined to chalk up these sentiments to my own neuroses, but I’ve discussed this with enough people to know that I am not alone. It doesn’t happen every day—I have been able to step back long enough from my own pity parties to realize that all is not lost—but that doesn’t mean I don’t often begin by losing sight of the big picture.
In the same way that we focus on life’s little potholes, I find that it’s often the most difficult people in our worlds who capture our attention. That colleague who bugs the crap out of you, the one you can’t quite figure out. The ex-boyfriend who you’re still arguing with in your head. Or the person in the supermarket who picked a fight with you for no good reason. And on and on. Well, such is the case with the lead character in Anne Enright’s latest novel, The Forgotten Waltz.
Gina Moynihan is not that friend you’d call if you were having a lousy day and needed to be cheered. Frankly, she might make you feel worse. At her core, she is an unhappy, insecure woman who allows her disappointments to seep through the sieve of her daily life. As the book’s narrator, she expresses unkind thoughts about a child who’s had seizures, insults the family of the husband she’s been cheating on, and mocks the wife of the man with whom she’s been sleeping. Magnanimous, she is not. And for such an independent female character, it was annoying to see how much crap she was willing to tolerate from her lover.
And yet, despite her unpleasantness, I found myself fascinated by her. Maybe it’s the drive to understand what gets under my own skin, or perhaps it’s a sign of rebellion from the good girl in me—the one who’s always concerned with offending others—but I found Gina’s honesty liberating by proxy. She is who she is. Lord knows we’ve all had unkind thoughts about others and fallen short of our better selves. Enright allows her character to express herself frankly, without sugarcoating anything that emerges. As the book progresses, you see that Enright has created a fully formed human being, warts and all.
Reading The Forgotten Waltz, I was reminded a little of the lead character in one of my favorite novels, Olive Kitteridge. Olive is a woman unafraid to speak her mind, a person who makes you shake your head and tut-tut at some of the things that come out of her mouth. But by the end of that book, you understand her, and it is then that you realize the mastery of author Elizabeth Strout’s storytelling: She’s made you feel empathy, even affection, for this cranky woman, without in any way compromising Olive’s orneriness. Strout hasn’t softened Olive—it’s you, the reader, who has come around to her side.
I didn’t quite warm to Gina in the same way as Olive, but by the end of Anne Enright’s novel, I was able to see the humanity beneath Gina’s challenging surface. Though The Forgotten Waltz hasn’t staked out a spot on my short list of best-loved books, I’m still glad I made the time to read Enright’s quietly devastating insights about the ugly corners of the human soul. Sometimes, it takes an experience of the dark to help you fully appreciate the light.