"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Mystery of Memory: Review of Abby Frucht's Maids

We wonder about people in our past. We wonder, and to some extent are haunted by people who have passed through our lives without any real evidence as to who they were. To the writer, that wonder is a sort of power that fuels creativity and helps appease the gnawing mystery of memory. Abby Frucht, in her book Maids, uses a stream of conscious writing style to recollect and explore that wonder regarding the domestic women she knew as a girl.

This book reminds me of Susan Minot's novel Monkeys, because it is written from a deep place, a place where unresolved questions live--questions about people with hidden lives and loves. To pry open meaning, a stream of conscious style seems appropriate; formalities in language could blunt emotional impact. Author Molly McCloskey gets it right when she says in her blurb of the book "[O]ut of the shards of language a story coalesces." These shards are sharp and puncture. It only seems right that themes of race be written in this way.

At the heart of this book is a question Frucht poses to herself: why "this fug of mortified shyness she can't stand in herself when she's around black people"? By recollecting memories of the women when her interactions began, she constructs characters who may give her answers. There is Ida, the woman who "moves into the hallway her legs and arms attached to the shape of the Hotel Housekeeping Short Sleeve Dress," and Della who "slides her comfortable body between the two twin beds in the master bedroom," marking the text in time, and Cynthia who sits facing away from [the family] into the kitchen where they can look at the buttons at the back of (her) uniform." Frucht writes in Cynthia's voice, composing imagined letters from Cynthia to her husband Charles and daughter Wanda. Frucht the writer, the doctor's middle daughter now grown, asks "is it wrong to hope to imagine Cynthia's feelings? To put words into her thoughts into hopes in her"? This question is posed to the conscientious mind: is it right to invent, in the form of fiction, the thoughts of real people? The creative mind indulges not because the person (character) isn't capable of speaking her own mind, but because the daughter, the observer, the writer, wasn't there to hear it. It's a type of processing, of supposition, to alleviate the nagging mysteries of memory.

I love how the writing in this book is so close to the way actual thought forms in the mind (without commas, without formal grammar and realistic logic) cramming past with present, making unflinchingly honest associations: a unknown black man on a train becomes a potential thief and then Cynthia's husband:

[I]t's nearly impossible to avoid at all times the wrong things to say or the wrong ways of saying the right things to do but the daughter at least likes to try such as by moving the pocketbook sideways as if unconsciously just an inch or two sideways away from his finger the finger jumping in surprise...They slip into his lap the offended fingers the orange plaid cuff with the snaggled thread as side by side he and the doctor's daughter ride the rest of the way to Penn Station in silence less comforting than before their quarrel unspoken coming and going such as when did it start and when might it come undone?... Goodbye she even bids the man now in her mind your own daughter dear Wanda my exact same age whose name waves itself away

Although the prose takes some time to get used to without the formalities of punctuation and language (I had to read the book twice), the book is so satisfyingly human, it's worth the effort.


  1. While aiming to be compassionate, the author of Maids risks coming across as insensitive by supposing the literary market in this country needs any further musings from the white perspective about the intimate inner lives of PoC. Toni Morrison spoke often about the challenges surrounding black writers getting published. Rather than read about a white woman's imaginings of a black woman's life, it would be far more interesting to read a book written by a black author who wishes to share her point of view. The ground breaking book Beloved by Morrison is just one example of how a book about black people, from the actual perspective of a black person, can raise the bar on what art can be. It's a little embarresing in today's climate to assume art by a white person about a black person's perspective could offer anything new or interesting. The real thing is far richer than one could simply imagine. Imagination from a priviledged PoV doesn't hold a candle to the real thing.
    While the prose of Maids might be fresh, the topic of the book --- a book about black people from the white gaze --- is a tired one.

    1. To Anonymous. Maids, though, is not about "the intimate inner lives of PoC." Nor is it comprised of a "white woman's imaginings of a black woman's life." Rather, it's about white prejudice. It observes those aspects of my privileged childhood that speak to my still privileged efforts to account for my own family's (and that of other families like them) racism. Yes, some of the pieces give voice, via a child's intuition, to some of the women of color in the book...but in the service, precisely, of asking whether they have a right to do so....and to keep the book from looking only sideways at the women as they were looked at by my parents. In writing Maids I hope to provide only a small, even private, contribution to the by multitudes larger and far more public conversation that this country needs to have.

  2. PS I highly recommend revisiting Morrison's, 'Beloved'. Not the paper copy but the audio book read by the author herself. Pour yourself a glass of wine, put in your earbuds, turn off the lights, and let Morrison' words wash over you. I read her book in highschool, but to hear her read it was a totally different experience. And as an adult, I have a new appreciation for the story. It made me cry, it was so beautiful. It might resonate with you because your first book similarly touches on mental health, your style is poetic, and your newer work touches on the supernatural in the human culture.
    Also about Maids, I would argue that if someone at your level had to read it twice to understand it, the book might be challenging to read to the point of distracting from the art. I welcome a challenging read, but not when it becomes a hindrance to the message itself.

  3. Dear Anonymous,

    I listened to Beloved on audio many years ago, and I agree with you: hearing Morrison's voice tell the story is an immersive experience, a transcendental experience. I was blown away by it, haunted by it, and it certainly gave me license to create my own dead characters. However, that does not mean that one should forego Frucht's book. It identifies the seeds of prejudice, and while Frucht herself is not a prejudice person, she, with great honesty, delves into herself,to where the seeds of difference and wonder are planted. We all have these seeds, we all have these questions. Some of us allow for these differences to become the harvesting grounds for our own frustrations, others have more compassion and empathy, are more mindful; they acknowledge the difference, the humongous history of a people, the suffering of a people, and see it as Ellison did, a metaphor for all of us, because all of us struggle and suffer. We empathize. But first, there are the seeds. You cannot deny them. It's what you do with them that matters.

    As for the complexity of the text, yes, it's not easy to read. But often the books that are a challenge to read are often the most rewarding. They get you to think. That's what this book did for me: it got me to think. In that way it was successful.

    Thank you for your comments, and I do respect your points.