Laura, by Larry Watson

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Paul Finley is a precocious eleven-year-old, his father a book editor, his mother a teacher at a Boston women’s college. As Laura opens, the year is 1955, but his parents are precursors of the hippie-era that won’t arrive until midway through the next decade: each summer, the family escapes the humid heat of Boston to summer at a Vermont cottage. That cottage becomes a playground for writers, artists and intellectuals most of whom arrive bearing gifts of toys, games or sports equipment for Paul or his sister: “The problem, however, was that these gifts quickly found their way into the hands of the adults.”

But all this is backdrop and stage-setting, my attempt to set the time and place of that season’s essential occurrence: in the summer of 1955 I met Laura Coe Pettit, and the moment of that meeting was the one from which I began a measurement of time. Clocks and calendars can try to convince us that time always passes in equal measure, but we know better. Our thirty-fifth summer passes five times faster than our seventh, and for years my life speeded up or slowed down according to my meetings with or departures from Laura.

The narrative voice that introduces the reader to Laura obviously comes from a mature, adult Paul looking back but there is a remarkable sense of the present not just in this introduction but in the other memories that will come to his mind as the novel unfolds. Paul’s initial sight of Laura comes when he awakes to find her looking out the window in his bedroom — a somewhat drunk Laura (“I could smell the liquor on her breath, that heavy aroma like something sweet about to go sour. I had learned to identify the smell from my father.”) has escaped from the party downstairs.

Laura is a novel about a childhood infatuation that almost instantly becomes a lifelong obsession. Laura and Paul exchange a few awkward words, but the boy is already hooked:

I did not want her to leave me alone. As bewildered, apprehensive, and uncertain as I was about her presence, I still wanted her to stay. At eleven, though baseball and the Boy Scout manual dominated my life, another part of me escaped their rule. This was the part interested in, among other things, romantic novels about errant knights and endangered maidens. And I did more than read about the subject. More than once I had climbed the stairs with an imaginary sword in my hand, a cascade of bloodied foes behind me. When I reached the tower (my room) I burst through the door, ready to rescue the diaphanously gowned woman who was lashed to a chair just the way the woman was on the cover of Montaldo’s Revenge, a paperback lying around the house that summer. (The ropes crossed her breasts in an X, and high on her bare arm was the red mark of the lash.) No doubt this play was part of my awakening sexuality, but I wasn’t yet aware of it. And now a peculiar version of my fantasy was coming true. A beautiful young woman was in my room, though I, without sword or shield, was probably the one in need of rescue. I slept in my underpants, and I tried to pin down the sheet that covered me by unobtrusively pressing down on one of its folds with my forearm.

I’ve included that extended quote for a couple of reasons. One of the characteristics of obsessions is that they don’t change over time. The knight who is “probably the one in need of rescue” described here is a fair depiction of what Paul will be like for the next 30 years whenever Laura Coe Pettit is in the neighborhood or comes to mind. Equally important, however, is the revisionism that is apparent as this memory is recalled for that too will become a common feature as Paul presents his memories. Each time Paul recalls a scene or incident involving Laura and recounts the story, the weight of present-day interpretation being imposed on what really happened back then is readily apparent.

Laura has the honor of getting the title of the book, so it is worth sketching a bit about her. At the time of that first meeting in 1955, she is already a young poet of some reputation. Among certain academic circles (although not all) that reputation will grow — some will proclaim her as being as good as Emily Dickinson. To some extent her personality will offset that reputation. Like many writers, she has a deep-rooted lack of confidence which she protects by being aggressively offensive in her personal relations — the apparent contradiction will be familiar to anyone who has ever dealt with writers. It also shows up in her personal life — she alternates periods of hermit-like withdrawal with others where she actively (and awkwardly) seeks the public stage.

But while Laura gets the title, this novel is really about Paul — we see her only through his revised and edited memories. He doesn’t share her artistic tendencies; indeed, he never really understands her poems despite repeated efforts. His adolescent and young adult life is dominated by a scene he witnessed of Laura and his father making love — even as a teenager, he is competing with his father in his obsession. Paul’s father dies young, but that does not change things much. Paul goes on to become a pediatrician (a nice, safe role) and marries a woman (soft-spoken, always decent) who is everything that Laura is not but rather than serving as a balm to his obsession that apparent normality only makes it worse.

Laura is Larry Watson’s fifth novel and my fourth — you can find reviews of his first three (Montana 1948, Justice and White Crosses here). An interview with Watson at the conclusion of my Washington Square Press edition contains an important admission, however: he wrote a draft of Laura before writing the other three “but I struggled with it on and off for years”.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Laura, I would have to say that that struggle shows. One of the great strengths of those other three is Watson’s development of his fictional community of Bentrock, Montana — for this reader, the way that the author locates his characters in that Western town is a major plus. He does not do that in this book (the setting eventually moves from the Northeast to Wisconsin) and I missed that grounding — the story of this novel is pretty much restricted to Paul and his notion of what Laura is as time passes. Those other novels develop secondary characters; this one uses them strictly as props for the two protagonists.

I am impressed enough with Watson that I have committed to reading his catalogue in order — the publication of Let Him Go a few months ago means that I now have five more to go. Despite some minor concerns with this novel, I am delighted to have four still on the horizon. I have previously confessed an affection for western novelists both past and present (check the sidebar for reviews of Wallace Stegner and Guy Vanderhaeghe for just two examples) — Larry Watson holds his own with the best of them. While Laura may lack the Western touch that makes him a personal favorite, it is still a very impressive novel.

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6 Responses to “Laura, by Larry Watson”

  1. Brett Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks to your post, I have started picking up copies of Watson’s work. I’m curious that you say you only have 4 more of his to read. Presumably, you mean the 4 published after Laura. Does this mean you don’t plan to read “In A Dark Time” (which precedes Laura)? If not, why not? Just curious.

    By the way, I was thrilled to read that you would have chosen “The Orenda” as the best novel of 2013. I completely agree. I read it back in September (before it came out) and 4 months later, I am STILL disturbed/moved by it. Given that it wasn’t published until November 7th in the UK, would it be eligible for NEXT year’s Booker Prize? It saddens me to think it was overlooked for this year’s prize.

    And I STILL think you need to read “Mountains of the Moon” by I. J. Kay. ;-)

    Happy New Year,
    Brett

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Hi Brett,

      You are quite right — I have five to go (since I overlooked In A Dark Time) and I have edited the post.

      And the UK publication date does make The Orenda eligible for the 2014 Booker (as well as the inaugural Folio Prize) so we may well hear more about it later this year — although I suspect it may be too Canadian for UK juries.

      I did check out Mountains of the Moon and am afraid I have to disappoint you — good as it might be, it just does not suit my tastes.

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Interesting subject matter, but I find the prose in the quotes very over-elaborate – “that season’s essential occurrence”, “No doubt this play was part of my awakening sexuality, ” it feels a little laboured. Not as tempting to me as the others by him you’ve reviewed.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      In his other books, I’d say the prose is anything but “over-elaborate” — part of what I admire about Watson is the preciseness of his writing. I don’t think that is just a product of this being a first effort (even if it did get re-written later). I’d say he is more concise with descriptive rather than introspective writing.

      I’d say this one is more for completists than a good place to start — Montana 1948 is his best known book for good reason.

  3. Mary K Gilbert Says:

    White Crosses was one of the best books I read last year ( on your recommendation ) so it’ll be interesting to look for this one too though it sounds very different. Currently reading Stegner’s Recapitulation. What a wonderful writer! It’s not always easy to find these books in the UK. I often have to order them from the American Amazon site – a bit of a dilemma as I’m trying to cut back on Amazon books as their staff are not well treated. Happy New year by the way or Blwyddyn Newydd Dda as we say here in Wales!

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Watson remains a favorite. The character development is every bit as good in this one, but I missed the sense of western community that he created in the other three that I have read (and I am delighted his most recent two seem to include a return to the west).

      Recapitulation is a Stegner that I have not read, so you are ahead of me on that front. I intend to get to The Big Rock Candy Mountain for a re-read later this spring — it is set in a part of the United States just south of us that I have visited a number of times and that is an extra attraction for me.

      And your Welsh New Year’s greeting is a reminder that I need to finish Gerard Woodward’s trilogy soon (okay, only the first volume ventures to Wales, but that’s a start at least).

      If you are cutting back on Amazon ordering (I have the same problems with them), try checking out the Indigo site in Canada.. They have most of the American titles at about the same price — shipping costs for one volume are expensive but if you hold back until you have three or four they start to come into line.

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