Whitney Otto’s How to Make an American Quilt was a story which immediately and powerfully appealed to me.
As a narrative it was deliberately fragmented (like a quilt), and the idea of a mosaic of smaller pieces comprising a larger, complex whole translated brilliantly into film in the hands of Jocelyn Moorhouse.
I know, I know: a lot of people disliked the film, and not only because they disliked Winona Ryder as Finn, but because the story was structured in such a way that readers and viewers must be patient.
They were required to put a fair bit of work into drawing the connections themselves, and this idea of a mosaic of women (of artists, of friends, of lovers) plays out similarly in Eight Girls Taking Pictures.
This new novel is arranged into eight parts, each prefaced with a single photograph and titled for the woman who shot it, whose story will follow.
The work begins with Cymbeline, named for a king, which immediately draws attention to a series of gender-related issues, a focus which is echoed throughout this piece and throughout the work.
Cymbeline is striking out. She is not the first female photographer, but she is an oddity in the art world early in the twentieth century: surrounded by men, taught by men, sometimes restrained by and sometimes inspired by men.
And, yet, she experiences the art world very differently than the men in her classes, and this distinction continues to play out for her as the years pass, as she works to reconcile her identity as an artist with her identity as a wife and mother.
Cymbeline “had a moment of hard clarity that her life, her woman’s life, would be full of choices – ordinary ones a man might not even see as choices but as ‘life’ – that would constantly be canceling each other out”.
This kind of realization is echoed in later segments, although the women’s experiences vary widely and more opportunities are available to later characters.
“’It’s like I’ve had this great adventure, as if I’ve found my truest self,’ she said. ‘I’m not really fit for a woman’s life.'”
The narrative moves through time, slowly at first, with several of the early segments overlapping, the effects of the Great War impacting each of them in different ways.
Events like this in the novel are clearly of historical importance and each woman is touched by them, but they are also described with the novel’s theme in mind, often alluding to the intersection between reality/experience and perception/memory.
“Those who made it home weren’t the same, and those who waited at home were also changed. Everyone became a stranger of the most dislocating sort because everyone became, once again, unknown. Unknown yet looking familiar, everyone resembling someone he or she used to know.”
As the narrative progresses, the women’s lives begin to tangibly intersect, which adds another layer of interest to the story (just as the pieces of the quilt were connected to ever-larger segments in Otto’s earlier novel).
“And here is the funny thing about artistic influences: They don’t always come from the person whose work you think you love best. For example, Jessie very much liked Cymbeline’s pictures, but they weren’t her overall favorites. The importance of Cymbeline, for Jessie, was that she was the one who made photography possible for Jessie, both in her own mind and in the external world.”
And throughout, there is this echo of choices made (and avoided) and the different way that women experience this question of “choice” given the other passions and loves in their lives.
“She didn’t hate being a wife any more than she hated being a mother. What she hated was the way that wife, mother, and photographer created an unsolvable equation. What she hated was trying to solve the mathematics of her various roles. Factoring in her love and artistic connection to Ines was nearly impossible. Factor in fame and success, and she was no longer certain about anything.”
Also considered is the idea that these choices change the way that women identify inspiration for creative work.
“There was no mistaking that Miri Marxi’s serial portrait of her New York City neighborhood was as much a portrait of Miri as a wife and mother as Cymbeline’s garden pictures were of her life as a wife and mother. Cymbeline thought, We abstract the experience and the mean only see what we do as sweet, sentimental, missing the meaning entirely.”
For anyone who is interested in the ways in which women strive to balance creative work and the demands of personal relationships (whether with partners or children, or otherwise) and other domestic responsibilities, Eight Girls Taking Pictures, the idea of this novel will inherently appeal.
And, yet, as much as I love the idea of it, the realization of it does not fit with my expectations of a novel that I love. For my reader’s taste, Whitney Otto’s language is too functional, the expression unyielding, and it restricts the imaginative spirit that I long for in such a story. It is a wonderful concept, and I love to look at the imagery associated with it (see the Huffington Post feature here), but her writing style and my reading style are not a perfect match.