Plain Seeing: A Novel

Overview

When Lucy was fifteen, her mother died. Everything that has followed - her education, husband, and child - has been "after the fact." Her perennial grief is compounded by a sense of never having really known her mother, who ran away to California, then came home pregnant at seventeen. Did she really love Lucy? Could she have struggled harder to live? Lucy has only the image of her mothers stepping down from a train into her own mother's arms, and her memories of an enigmatic, melancholy woman. How often she has ...
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Overview

When Lucy was fifteen, her mother died. Everything that has followed - her education, husband, and child - has been "after the fact." Her perennial grief is compounded by a sense of never having really known her mother, who ran away to California, then came home pregnant at seventeen. Did she really love Lucy? Could she have struggled harder to live? Lucy has only the image of her mothers stepping down from a train into her own mother's arms, and her memories of an enigmatic, melancholy woman. How often she has thought, I wish there were more to know. More to tell. The reader does know more. "Emma Laura's Book," which opens with a family gathered for a portrait in a 1938 West Texas farm town, sweeps to wartime Hollywood and illuminates the myth of the vibrant young woman whose beauty might have made her a star. Nearly half a century later, in "Lucy's Book," her daughter is struggling to recover from a terrible injury when she realizes her family life is falling apart. Lucy's visit to her last older relative, her funny and feisty Aunt Opal in Lubbock, Texas, leads to the discovery of a second photograph taken that day in 1938. From there she embarks on a quest to understand her mother's young life, as a way to see the plain truth of her own. Only as she accepts the mystery of her mother's story can she begin to live a real and present life.
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Editorial Reviews

Austin American Statesman
Scofield insightfully, and sometimes poignantly, explores a complex version of female desire and loss.
Boston Sunday Globe
Scofield's sense of history and of place is unfaltering, unflagging...She subtly combines humor and pathos in all her observation.
Chicago Tribune
Quite original...[Scofield] shows an extraordinary understanding of the power of absence...Redolent of Mary Karr's memoir, The Liar's Club.
Detroit Free Press
Lushly described and poignantly rendered...a moving and accomplished tale.
Oakley Hall
...full of family news, triumphs and calamities, love and death and sharply realized life. This is a very fine novel.
Kirkus Reviews
The seemingly inexhaustible potential for mothers to ruin daughter's lives—even if it's by dying young—is probed in a novel that tries to be warm, wise, and moving, but without much success.

Scofield (Opal on Dry Ground, 1994, etc.) assembles a strong cast of supporting characters to tell the story of a woman obsessed with her mother's early death. But the weakest figures here, unfortunately, are the two protagonists: mother Emma and daughter Lucy, whose self-destructive and self-absorbed lives evoke more impatience than sympathy—even when Emma has to abandon her dream career and the grown Lucy's family walks out on her. Now 45, Lucy, still unhappy and yearning to understand why her life seems so wretched, tells a story framed by two photographs: one taken of her mother in May 1938, full of promise, and another of herself as a baby in the 1940s. Emma, a blond beauty, dreams of leaving her home in New Mexico and going to Hollywood in search of stardom. Then she meets Hollis, a screenwriter on location in the desert, and accepts his invitation to come to California. But she loses her virginity in a barely credible manner and becomes pregnant, cutting short her burgeoning movie career that kindly Hollis has been nursing along. Back in New Mexico with mother Greta and sister Opal, she gives birth to Lucy, marries someone else, and dies in her early 30s without sharing her past with her daughter. Which of course explains why Lucy has been unhappy, unfaithful in her marriage to academic Gordon, and not a good mother to daughter Laurie. A traffic accident, in which Lucy is badly injured and after which Gordon and Laurie abandon her, leads to the predictable catharsis. Lucy rallies, and, after finally learning the truth about Mom—and Dad—feels "able to live a real life" at last.

Shallow and schematic. Not Scofield's best.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060929459
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/28/1998
  • Pages: 301
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.84 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Table of Contents

Emma Laura's Book 1938-1943 1
Lucy's Book 1965-1989 121
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Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary:
Plain Seeing is the story of Lucy, a woman whose childhood loss of her mother, Emma Laura, has kept her from fully seeing her own life. The novel chronicles the young adulthood of mysterious Emma Laura, telling the reader the very story that Lucy can never know, and subsequently tells of Lucy's marriage and motherhood, and the events that eventually lead her to search for the meaning of her mother's life.

Praise for Plain Seeing:
"Quite original...[Scofield] shows an extraordinary understanding of the power of absence...Redolent of Mary Karr's memoir, The Liar's Club."
--Chicago Tribune

"Scofield's sense of history and of place is unfaltering, unflagging...She subtly combines humor and pathos in all her observation."
--Boston Sunday Globe

"Genuinely moving...Compelling...Few writers capture feelings of yearning and disappointment as palpably as Scofield."
--Newsday

"Lushly described and poignantly rendered...a moving and accomplished tale."
--Detroit Free Press

Topics for Discussion:
1. Emma Laura's story is firmly embedded in the story of her time. The Depression has a tragic impact on her family. The beginning of World War II gives the family a fresh start, but by then Greta's character has been irrevocably shaped by her losses. Emma Laura, on the other hand, looks at life with the insouciant optimism of youth. Remembering her youth, discuss her self-centeredness, the way it affects her family, and the ways it isolates her.

2. Scofield says Emma Laura is a kind of "myth" for her daughter. Discuss the ways that Lucy's idea of her mother isinfluenced by actual events in her childhood or stories she has been told, a slim string that ties her to the past.

3. How does Lucy's idea of her mother influence the way Lucy connects to other people? How does she act out the mythic characteristics she attributes to her mother? Did you lose patience with her? Sympathy?

4. Lucy believes Laurie is very much her father's daughter. Why does she think so? Do you? How does this serve to create distance between Lucy and her child? Lucy's accident serves as a turning point in her life. How does her attitude as a mother change? How does she try to reach her daughter? Is it too late?

5. Scofield says she envisioned the novel as a kind of "figure 8," in which two stories intersect and flow into one another. Note that the opening pages are the only text in the first person. Who is this narrator? Reread the passage on pp. 4-5 that begins, "I was born on August 5, 1943..." Now consider: which interpretation of the structure do you prefer: Emma Laura's story is the one that happened and that Lucy can never know--or is it the story Lucy constructs to satisfy her longing for a cohesive narrative?

About the Author:
Sandra Scofield is the author of seven novels, most recently Plain Seeing and A Chance to See Egypt. Her work has received wide critical praise, including nominations for the National Book Award (1991) and for the Oregon Book Award (1994, 1996), awards from the Before Columbus Foundation (1992) and the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Fiction (1997). Her essay, "Writing from Love and Grief and Fear" was included in the National Book Foundation anthology, The Writing Life.

Sandra was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, and now lives in Oregon. She has taught numerous workshops and short residencies, and has spoken at the Iowa Center for the Book, Des Moines; and visited the Spokane Reservation, both on behalf of the National Book Foundation. She also participated in the NBF's "Pleasures of Reading" writer residency program in 1998. She is a regular contributor of book reviews to the Portland Oregonian, Chicago Tribune, and Newsday, and writes frequently for other newspapers, including the Boston Globe.

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