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What Is Visible: A Novel

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Overview

New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

Bookpage Best Books of 2014

Woman's Day "Most Inspirational Book of 2014"

Women's National Book Association Great Group Reads Pick for 2014

A vividly original literary novel based on the astounding true-life story of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf and blind person who learned language and blazed a ...

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What Is Visible: A Novel

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Overview

New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

Bookpage Best Books of 2014

Woman's Day "Most Inspirational Book of 2014"

Women's National Book Association Great Group Reads Pick for 2014

A vividly original literary novel based on the astounding true-life story of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf and blind person who learned language and blazed a trail for Helen Keller.
At age two, Laura Bridgman lost four of her five senses to scarlet fever. At age seven, she was taken to Perkins Institute in Boston to determine if a child so terribly afflicted could be taught. At age twelve, Charles Dickens declared her his prime interest for visiting America. And by age twenty, she was considered the nineteenth century's second most famous woman, having mastered language and charmed the world with her brilliance. Not since The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has a book proven so profoundly moving in illuminating the challenges of living in a completely unique inner world.

With Laura-by turns mischievous, temperamental, and witty-as the book's primary narrator, the fascinating kaleidoscope of characters includes the founder of Perkins Institute, Samuel Gridley Howe, with whom she was in love; his wife, the glamorous Julia Ward Howe, a renowned writer, abolitionist, and suffragist; Laura's beloved teacher, who married a missionary and died insane from syphilis; an Irish orphan with whom Laura had a tumultuous affair; Annie Sullivan; and even the young Helen Keller.

Deeply enthralling and rich with lyricism, WHAT IS VISIBLE chronicles the breathtaking experiment that Laura Bridgman embodied and its links to the great social, philosophical, theological, and educational changes rocking Victorian America. Given Laura's worldwide fame in the nineteenth century, it is astonishing that she has been virtually erased from history. WHAT IS VISIBLE will set the record straight.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Barbara Kingsolver
What Is Visible contemplates the bare requisites of being human, more fundamentally than most meditations on haves and have-nots. When Laura is put on display, she wants to be seen as "a present to them all from God, to show how little one can possess of what we think it means to be human while still possessing full humanity." A novel's extraordinary power is to allow a reader to take possession of the inner life of another. This one provides entree to a nearly unthinkable life, and while no one would want to live there, it's a fascinating place to visit.
Publishers Weekly
★ 03/10/2014
Laura Bridgman lost all her senses but that of touch due to a fever at age two. Though she was an internationally renowned figure in the mid-19th century, Laura has been all but forgotten by history. Fortunately, Elkins revives this historical figure with a wonderfully imaginative and scrupulously researched debut novel. Arriving at the Perkins Institution as a child, Laura learns to read, write, and “speak” through signing via the manual alphabet, with letters tapped out on her hand. Though she receives hundreds of visitors at “Exhibition Days,” Laura has few friends or family members who care about her. She is intensely attached to Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe from the institution, and suffers virtual abandonment when he marries to begin a family of his own. Howe, acting in accordance with the religious and scientific mores of his time, thwarts the dreams and desires of the women around him, including his wife, Julia Ward; Laura’s teacher, Sarah Wight; and Laura herself. But despite the many physiological and social restrictions placed on her, Laura comes across as a willful, mysterious marvel, showing “how little one can posses of what we think it means to be human while still possessing full humanity.” (June)
From the Publisher
"WHAT IS VISIBLE contemplates the bare requisites of being human, more fundamentally than most meditations on haves and have-nots... A novel's extraordinary power is to allow a reader to take possession of the inner life of another. This one provides entrée to a nearly unthinkable life, and while no one would want to live there, it's a fascinating place to visit."—Barbara Kingsolver, New York Times Book Review

"Kimberly Elkins gives Bridgman her defiant due in reimagining her fascinating, now-forgotten story... The world Elkins discovers within is anything but muted. In tactile prose, she evokes a soul and a body with hungers (yes, there is sex) that none of Bridgman's guides begins to imagine."—The Atlantic Magazine

"Kimberly Elkins's wonderful novel salvages [Laura Bridgman's] story from the sunken wreckage of history and tells it anew in riveting, poignant detail... "What is Visible" illuminates the historical blindness of men - and women's struggles to be seen and heard. The novel is infused with longing and rich with detail about the social reforms of the Victorian era, the quest for rights and freedom for women and slaves, for the disabled and the poor.... Elkins makes this great American woman visible again, in all her remarkable, fully human complexity."—The Washington Post

"An engrossing and moving read."—Woman's Day (A "Best Book of 2014")

"The best historical fiction offers readers a new look at a well-known subject, or illuminates an episode or individual that has been lost to history. Playwright Kimberly Elkins achieves the latter in What Is Visible, a strikingly original debut novel."—BookPage Fiction Top Pick, June 2014

"WHAT IS VISIBLE is remarkable at many levels. It is written in an intelligent, intricate style, populated with many true historical figures, and teeming with convincing period details. Above all, the novel has a unique narrative structure, which illustrates the art of fiction at its best in presenting the interior. A splendid debut indeed."—Ha Jin, National Book Award Winner for Waiting

"I know firsthand how brutally difficult it is to write a creatively rich, humanly revealing novel based on real people in a distant time. Kimberly Elkins does this brilliantly. WHAT IS VISIBLE is not only a compelling, deeply moving novel, it is a fully realized work of art. This is an auspicious debut of an important new writer."—Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

"An astonishing debut that vividly brings to life a forgotten chapter of American history. You'll recognize many of the characters in WHAT IS VISIBLE, but its heroine, Laura Bridgman, is likely someone you've never heard of. After you read it, you'll never forget her. Beautiful, heart-wrenching, and at times quite funny, this book is a marvel."—J. Courtney Sullivan, New York Times bestselling author of Maine and The Engagements

"I found myself slowly mesmerized by WHAT IS VISIBLE, and then increasingly haunted and bound to the story of Laura Bridgman, the second, deeper, darker invisibility of her life so permanently excavated and restored to memory by the talented hand of Kimberly Elkins and her extraordinary powers of imagination. To say that I was profoundly moved by this novel would be an understatement."—Bob Shacochis, author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul

"A wonderfully imaginative and scrupulously researched debut novel... [The protagonist] comes across as a willful, mysterious marvel, showing 'how little one can posses of what we think it means to be human while still possessing full humanity.'"—Publishers Weekly (STARRED)

"An affecting portrait which finally provides its idiosyncratic heroine with a worthy voice."—Kirkus Reviews

"Told in alternating chapters by Laura, Howe, his poet wife, and Laura's beloved teacher, this is a complex, multilayered portrait of a woman who longed to communicate and to love and be loved. Elkins fully captures her difficult nature and her relentless pursuit of connection."—Booklist

Ha Jin
"WHAT IS VISIBLE is remarkable at many levels. It is written in an intelligent, intricate style, populated with many true historical figures, and teeming with convincing period details. Above all, the novel has a unique narrative structure, which illustrates the art of fiction at its best in presenting the interior. A splendid debut indeed."
Robert Olen Butler
"I know firsthand how brutally difficult it is to write a creatively rich, humanly revealing novel based on real people in a distant time. Kimberly Elkins does this brilliantly. WHAT IS VISIBLE is not only a compelling, deeply moving novel, it is a fully realized work of art. This is an auspicious debut of an important new writer."
J. Courtney Sullivan
"An astonishing debut that vividly brings to life a forgotten chapter of American history. You'll recognize many of the characters in WHAT IS VISIBLE, but its heroine, Laura Bridgman, is likely someone you've never heard of. After you read it, you'll never forget her. Beautiful, heart-wrenching, and at times quite funny, this book is a marvel."
Bob Shacochis
"I found myself slowly mesmerized by WHAT IS VISIBLE, and then increasingly haunted and bound to the story of Laura Bridgman, the second, deeper, darker invisibility of her life so permanently excavated and restored to memory by the talented hand of Kimberly Elkins and her extraordinary powers of imagination. To say that I was profoundly moved by this novel would be an understatement."
Kirkus Reviews
2014-04-17
The story of Helen Keller's forgotten forerunner comes nimbly to life in Elkins' debut novel.Born in 1829, Laura Bridgman was just 2 years old when she contracted scarlet fever. She survived but lost all senses except touch. At 7, she was sent to Boston to live with Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of the Perkins Institute, who taught her tactile sign language, tapped out in the palm of the hand, which eventually enabled her to read, write and do arithmetic as well as hold conversations. As word of Howe's achievement spread, Laura herself grew famous. A miracle girl whose renown was rivaled only by Queen Victoria, she was celebrated in the press and even written about by Dickens. Yet she remained an experiment for Howe. After he acquired a family and her development plateaued, she was increasingly left trapped in her own inner world. Flitting back and forth over the course of a half-century, the novel is told from alternating viewpoints, including Laura's own. She is at once savvy and naïve, and as she strives to understand the world through touch alone, she falls in love with Howe, campaigns to be allowed glass eyes and access to the Bible, and has an intensely physical affair with an orphaned Irish girl. A little too much is made of the latter event, along with bouts of anorexia and self-harming, though the historical background is elegantly sketched. In her late 50s, Laura meets 8-year-old Helen Keller, already known as "the second Laura Bridgman." ("The second, and I'm still here!" she huffs.) Other perspectives contextualize her celebrity and include those of Howe; his headstrong wife, Julia, a writer, abolitionist and suffragist; and Laura's favorite teacher, who marries a missionary and meets a tragic end. An affecting portrait which finally provides its idiosyncratic heroine with a worthy voice.
Library Journal
05/15/2014
Having lost every sense save touch to scarlet fever as a toddler, Laura Bridgman (1829–1889) captivated her contemporaries' imaginations by learning to communicate through finger spelling and writing, inspiring dolls, poetry, and even an essay by Charles Dickens, decades before Helen Keller was born. For all the fervor and news stories Laura generated at the time, though, there is no autobiography to tell us of her inner life, and few remember her story; debut novelist Elkins creates a fictional memoir to remedy those erasures. The audacious liberties Elkins takes—inventing a romance for Laura, taking great pains to highlight the most tragically ironic hypocrisies of her famous caregivers—make the story sometimes feel like a writer's exercise rather than a novel. However, Elkins does inspire the reader to imagine life experienced only through touch, and Laura's powerlessness to make her own decisions feels criminal rather than justifiable, even given her disabilities. VERDICT Fans of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will surely enjoy this novel for its peek inside another unconventional mind. Patrons interested in protagonists with disabilities, historical women's fiction, or LGBT romance will appreciate Elkins's original approach to each. [See Prepub Alert, 1/6/14.]—Nicole R. Steeves, Chicago P.L.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781455528967
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 6/3/2014
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 130,238
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 5.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Kimberly Elkins was a finalist for the National Magazine Award and has published fiction and nonfiction in the Atlantic, Best New American Voices, Iowa Review, Chicago Tribune, Glamour, and Village Voice, among others. WHAT IS VISIBLE is her first novel.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 5 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 24, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    When I decided to preview this novel on Netgalley with a "t

    When I decided to preview this novel on Netgalley with a "taste" of the book, I never thought I would be caught up, leading me to purchase it just so I could finish the story This is a fascinating account of Laura Bridgman, the very first known woman who was both deaf and blind, and who learned to communicate. It is a book I imagine will mesmerize everyone. I was held rapt, absolutely.

    While "What Is Visible" is a historical novel, Kimberly Elkins writes with such grace and delicacy that it flies off the pages as a real account. Absorbing and disturbing at times, it's a book I couldn't put down and raced through the night hoping to finish. It took me longer than I had eyes to keep open!

    Each of the characters she describes are vivid in their every day lives in her novel. I was completely engaged with Laura and the Doctor. We are drawn in likes voyeurs able to see what a magnificent and complicated person Laura was, and how she loved the Doctor who sculpted her life. I think the underlying study of what her inner life might have been like was most compelling. This is a novel with teeth, but also with a strong heart at the center. Laura seems to reach for us from its pages and she touches us!

    I can't say enough about the genius of Ms Elkins's writing. The novel is beautifully crafted. The characters engender caring and tender feelings. The story is moving. You can tell her heart is in this book.

    This is a must read.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 29, 2014

    This is one of the most profoundly gorgeous books I have read al

    This is one of the most profoundly gorgeous books I have read all year. It tells the story of Laura Bridgman, who had lost most of her senses by the time she was five, and grew up to be one of the most famous women in America. About fame, love, and living as fully as possible under incredible obstacles, the novel is gorgeously written and unsettling in the best of all ways. Elkins is a master. I

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 17, 2014

    In WHAT IS VISIBLE, we meet Laura Bridgman, whose sense of touch

    In WHAT IS VISIBLE, we meet Laura Bridgman, whose sense of touch was the only one of her senses to survive after a bout with scarlet fever when she was a child. Preceding Helen Keller by 51 years, Laura was a famous resident of Perkin’s School for the Blind and Deaf/Blind in Massachusetts and was frequently written about and visited to showcase her education that she learned via finger spelling. While the story is historical fiction, the novel showcases the real life people and historical events of the time. It’s an educational and entertaining read…

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 31, 2014

    I fell in love with this book; I fell in love with Laura Bridgma

    I fell in love with this book; I fell in love with Laura Bridgman. You'd think that a character who was deaf/blind/mute wouldn't be very interesting, but she's brilliant, funny and stubbornly her own person against all odds. The writing itself is absolutely gorgeous, and I also wouldn't have expected this book to have such elements as romance, bisexuality, affairs, etc., but it's all based on tons of research and history, and covers over 50 years. I also learned a lot of Civil War and Victorian-era history. Bottom line: How could this American icon, once considered the 19th century's 2nd most famous woman, have been forgotten, and now we only remember Helen Keller, who was actually called "the second Laura Bridgman"? The novel examines the why and how of that fact dealing with ideas about female beauty, religion, politics, etc. Besides Laura, there's Julia Ward Howe, who I eventually also came to care about, and her husband, the head of Perkins Institute, who's everything you could love and hate in a man, and even Annie Sullivan and the young Helen Keller. Unputdownable!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2014

    Highly Recommend

    This was such a well written and interesting story that I ordered some more for gifts for Christmas

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