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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.
|Emma Laura's Book 1938-1943||1|
|Lucy's Book 1965-1989||121|
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."
"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."
"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.