A modern woman and timeless ideas

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Leda and the Swan by Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Some novels call on certain readers to find them, so that those readers can be immersed in the feelings and ideas that make up the reason for the story. Such a novel for me is The deceptions by Jill Bialosky.

The novel begins with the announcement of an upcoming book that promises to shed light on the relationship between two contemporary poets. The book, written by a young university student, is called Justification. Echoes of Mary Wollstonecraft are perfectly appropriate. For it is the story of a woman, of creativity, of communion with words and of the poet’s challenge to use words to give meaning to ideas, emotions and events.

The novel then shifts to the narration of an unnamed woman, a middle-aged teacher whose latest book of poetry will soon be published. She doesn’t know whether to look forward to or dread a promised New York Times review, especially if some misogynist writes the review. He is a person who is enveloped in words and has been for most of his life. She teaches the classics to boys on the brink of manhood at a private academy in Manhattan. Her husband is a medical researcher. Their only surviving child, a son, is a freshman in a small town.

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At the beginning of the story, she is anxious and her husband is angry. He focuses on televised sports and they hardly do anything together. Of course, it’s been ages since they’ve been intimate. To what extent is this due to his anxiety about his book? About their two worries for their son? What about his job, which he doesn’t like to talk about? And what about the Visiting Poet who was in residence at her school last year? What role does he play in his regrets?

To stabilize herself, our poet spends as much time as possible at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a place she’s frequented for much of her life, and she finds both peace and quests there. During his visits, the reader can see the works of art that are his focal points of concentration and ruminate on how the attributes of the work of art and the deity depicted propel his search for answers to what causes his internal crises. These interior monologues and a few conversations with museum staff and visitors are exceptional ways to work on the ideas that anchor classical Greek, Roman, and Egyptian literature and deities, and how these ideas structure our culture today.

The classical references are particularly appropriate as her forthcoming book is a series of poems inspired by the myth of Leda and the Swan. That there is more than one way to view the story and that Leda is woven into the museum’s monologues and into the very fabric of the narrative. It’s not an easy subject, but it’s a subject to be tackled with heart and mind.

To compare and contrast our poet’s family life, she has a longtime neighbor whose situation sometimes mirrors her own. The two couples had twins, a boy and a girl. Our poet’s daughter died after a day. The other couple’s daughter is like an adopted daughter to her in their shared love of literature and writing. While it’s unclear what happened between her and the visiting poet, her neighbor has fallen in love with her yoga teacher and knows she’s now living her best life.

Before the novel ends, the reader discovers the mystery of the visiting poet, what kind of book review is published in the Times, and what our poet is planning next. Because of the trips she’s taken to the Met, there’s a strong foundation for her determination to be herself and not be confined by how a male-dominated society sees the world.

Through The deceptions, the author does not hesitate to confront himself with nuance, with more than one look at things and the lies that people tell themselves, as well as to others. As one notes when contemplating a statue of Heracles, pathos is an important aspect of this novel. Emotions are both recognized and projected.

The deceptions is a captivating and captivating novel. The reader does not need to be able to relate to all aspects of our poet’s situation to connect with his thoughts and feelings. This is a novel that can stay with the reader for a very long time.

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