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The Margaret-Ghost

The Margaret-Ghost

by Barbara Novak
This fascinating novel by Barbara Novak blends painstaking scholarship and compelling fiction writing as it follows the lives of two women, one the subject of the other's research. Tenure-track professor Angelica Bookbinder is researching a book on the woman Henry James called "the Margaret-Ghost": the brilliant, New England feminist Margaret Fuller (1810-1850),


This fascinating novel by Barbara Novak blends painstaking scholarship and compelling fiction writing as it follows the lives of two women, one the subject of the other's research. Tenure-track professor Angelica Bookbinder is researching a book on the woman Henry James called "the Margaret-Ghost": the brilliant, New England feminist Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), who was a friend and contemporary to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Horace Greeley, among other nineteenth-century notable figures. Fascinated by Fuller's personal life as much as by her brilliance, Angelica focuses her research on the role that love played in Fuller's life, examining both her heterosexual and homosexual liaisons, while trying to understand her lifelong struggle to balance her intellectual strengths with her emotional needs. Driven by the belief that Fuller's life was dominated by a frustrated quest for love, Angelica passionately pursues her research, all the while aware that in doing so, she is straying from the academic straight and narrow.At the same time, Angelica finds her own romantic dilemmas beginning to echo Fuller's. Moving between nineteenth- and twentieth-century Boston, Angelica follows her research with an almost carnal obsession, bouncing between the advances of a female colleague and a burgeoning relationship with a fellow tenure-track professor. Her new lover, a Harvard scholar studying Herman Melville, appreciates Angelica's intellect—when it does not challenge his—but seems to prefer the body of someone Angelica contemptuously calls "the Baywatch girl." Juxtaposing nineteenth-century high culture and contemporary pop references with often-hilarious results, Novak probes the nature of male-female relationships, questioning if certain patterns transcend time. Satirical, erudite, and beautifully written, The Margaret-Ghost investigates relationships, academia, love, and research, creating a captivating parallel across generations between the passionate Margaret Fuller and her equally passionate researcher.

About the Author:
: Barbara Novak is the author of Alice's Neck, her first novel. Best known for her distinguished career as an art historian at Barnard College and Columbia University, she is the author of some of the founding texts on American art history and American studies. She resides with her husband, the artist and writer Brian O'Doherty, in New York.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Art historian and novelist Novak (Alice's Neck) links a modern-day professor and the 19th-century subject of her research in this slim, scholarly novel. Seeking tenure at a small Boston college, Angelica Bookbinder delves into the life of the great feminist intellectual Margaret Fuller, who was dubbed by Henry James "the Margaret-ghost" and who intimidated even Emerson. But instead of focusing on Fuller's scholarly achievements, the increasingly obsessed Angelica decides to write about Margaret's theories and practices of love, thus putting herself "on the verge of academic suicide." In order to understand Margaret's lesbian liaisons, Angelica attempts one herself with a female professor; to comprehend Margaret's strained relationship with a man, Angelica begins her own with a Melville scholar she meets in the library. Though they enjoy what Angelica prissily calls "physical rapport," he turns his attention from Angelica to a Baywatch beauty. For the reader, the fictional Angelica takes a backseat to the more compelling factual Margaret. Novak's great fondness for and knowledge of her historical subject is palpable; perhaps a straight biography would have sufficed? Erudite and thorough in her research, Novak sometimes lacks comparable elegance in her prose (she has, for instance, a tiresome tendency to pose several questions in succession). And while she begins to explore the complexities of romance in the ethereal realm of academia, she doesn't delve deep enough. The obscurity of the subject and terseness of Novak's tone mean that few readers outside the target intellectual audience-say, those who will understand "Margaret had seen Anna as Recamier to her own de Stael"-may take notice. (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In respected art historian Novak's second novel (after Alice's Neck), Angelica Bookbinder is a thirtysomething Boston literature professor on sabbatical who hopes to win tenure by writing a book about 19th-century American intellectual, writer, and early feminist Margaret Fuller. Educated in the classics, Fuller was a brilliant conversationalist; an editor (with Emerson) of the Transcendentalist newspaper, the Dial; and an advocate for the rights of the mentally ill and the welfare of prostitutes. Trying to decide which aspect of Fuller's life to examine, Angelica begins probing Fuller's search for romantic fulfillment with both men and women. Equally captivating is the mystery of Fuller's years in Italy, where she gave birth to a son and possibly married the child's father. As she delves into Fuller's romantic liaisons, Angelica begins exploring such relationships in her own life, which leads to odd entanglements. The steady revelation of these two women's parallel lives keeps the reader's interest going, as does the sly, dead-on satiric observations. Peppering her text with cultural anecdotes from both eras, Novak also captures the centuries-old dilemma about whether it's best to follow one's heart or one's head. Recommended for all academic and most public library fiction collections.-Maureen Neville, Trenton P.L., NJ Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From eminent art historian and second-novelist Novak (Alice's Neck, 1987), a wry little slip of a tale about a professor trying for tenure by writing a book about 19th-century intellectual and feminist Margaret Fuller. In her early 30s, Angelica Bookbinder tells about her year's leave from the English Department in a small Boston college: her purpose is to finish her book for submission to the department, whose members will grant or deny tenure depending on how they find it. As she gets further into her subject, though, Bookbinder is drawn to that aspect of Fuller-her love life-least likely to please the faculty readers. Did Fuller want intellectual independence, freedom, and equality with men-or did she want adoration, love, and motherhood? Helpless to resist, Angelica goes ever deeper in exploring the second possibility-and her own life begins to parallel Fuller's, albeit faintly. Reading daily in Harvard's Houghton Library, she meets handsome James Apthorp, who is also trying to get tenure, though by writing on Melville. Intellectual conversations start up ("M & M's," Angelica calls them, for Melville & Margaret), followed by visits to Angelica's bed-though talks and visits both become less frequent with the appearance of the sexy lady (the "bimbo") whom James begins seeing. What to do? Compete with the bimbo by wearing uplift bras (Angelica tries them)? Become more lustful (she tries)? Explore same-sex love, as Fuller did (ditto, but she doesn't like it)? Or-yet how?-just be true to herself? Throughout, the reader is carried along by the story of Fuller's life, her connections with the century's luminaries, her travel to Rome, passionate love (with a man who can't even read),illegitimate child, dreadful death by shipwreck. Often amusing in spite of its thinness (Angelica is sweet but hardly believable), Novak's satire takes wings mainly in its (or in Angelica Bookbinder's) sections about Fuller, which, treated however lightly, are compelling, informative, and historic.

Product Details

Braziller, George Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.49(h) x 0.83(d)

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