Thursday, January 10, 2013

Review: That's How It Was

Maureen Duffy’s That’s How It Was (1962) was the first book I finished in 2013!  I sort of feel like it should be heralded with a little more fanfare, due to this privileged position, but the truth is that I’m left feeling somewhat ambivalent about this book.  When I flew out to St. Louis for a few days, I brought Villette, which I was about 100 pages into at the time, but knowing that I don’t usually prefer heavy reading in small type while traveling, I also grabbed two Viragos as alternatives.  I ended up finishing one and starting the other, and poor Villette remained untouched (how’s that for symbolism about lonely Lucy Snowe?)

That’s How It Was is the largely autobiographical bildungsroman about Patricia Mahoney, called Paddy after her father.  She is the illegitimate daughter of Louey, an impoverished and working-class woman fighting tuberculosis.  The novel focuses on their relationship within the context of World War II, the tuberculosis epidemic, and England’s growing push for easier access to higher education for the working class.  Duffy lived through all of this herself, and some of the details she tosses in make Paddy’s world extremely vivid.  For example, Paddy’s schoolteacher’s description of the participation of women and children in the way effort:

“Now children, we can’t all be soldiers and fight for our country but we can all help the war effort in our own little ways.  You can help by being economical.  You see my little blue sandals.  I’ve had them for eight years and they’ve still got years of wear in them, because I clean them every day.  Now that’s one way you can all do your bit, by cleaning your shoes every day.  The country can’t afford to waste new shoes on lazy boys and girls, when she has to find boots for her soldiers.”  (58-59)

We’re supposed to idealize the close relationship between Paddy and her mother, which often is quite loving and generous, as when Paddy begins carrying her ill mother on the handlebars of her bicycle because otherwise Louey wouldn’t be able to leave the house, but it usually struck me as a clinging and unhealthy bond.  Louey depends on her daughter too much, frequently reminding Paddy, “You’re all I’ve got.”  The problem is that Paddy isn’t all Louey’s got – Louey remarries partway into the novel and ought to be able to rely a bit on her husband and stepchildren instead of placing all responsibility on her daughter, who is struggling to achieve her own aspirations for higher education.  Paddy finds herself torn between her literary ambition and her love for and duty toward her mother, and a crush on a female teacher leaves Paddy feeling devastated that she may be abandoning her mother.

Duffy’s writing was passable, I suppose, but I didn’t love it.  I especially disliked the first few chapters in which Paddy narrated her mother’s childhood.  Things picked up a bit when Paddy began relating her own story.  Duffy is a playwright by trade, and this was unhappily discernible in the novel.  She writes like a playwright – dialogue is snappy and subtextual, and anything not specifically dialogue is delivered as internal monologue.  Prose is sparse and dismal, though considering the subject matter, it would be awfully inappropriate to have cheerful language in such a harsh context.  She attempts to push symbols too obviously and too far – for example, the unicorn Paddy gives her mother as a gift is quite clearly symbolic of their struggle to survive and Duffy’s idea that this effort made them stronger in the end:

“Open it!”

She unwrapped the little box, tuppence in Woolworth’s, and took off the lid.  Inside, bedded down in cotton wool, was a little blue plastic unicorn that had cost me a whole sixpence.  Gently she picked it out and stood it on the locker.  It toppled over at once.

“He’s like me, a bit wobbly on his pins.”  Patiently, she stood him up again.  This time he stayed.


I sighed with relief.  “Do you like it?  Is it alright?”

“It’s fine.  I shall be able to look at him and think of you.  I think I’ll lean him against the clock-face – he seems a bit tired.”

“But he does stand up, doesn’t he?”

“Oh yes.  He stands very well.”

That little unicorn toppled from every available flat surface for years, until he finally broke his leg.  It was mended with sticky paper and after that he stood up steady as a rock.  (81)

This book was more educational for me than enjoyable, I think.  I certainly learned a lot about the experience of the working class in a difficult period in history, and grew to like Paddy for her indefatigable spirit.  Aesthetically, I didn’t find the book’s prose or situations appealing, but that drove home the weightiness of the difficulties Paddy (and by extension, Duffy herself) overcame, and the story she’s trying to tell wouldn’t have worked without them.

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