Trees on TV and a review of Judith Claire Mitchell’s “A Reunion of Ghosts”

This past weekend Tuki and I walked with R & Bailey again. We talked about her TV spot. She’s a city forester and was interviewed by a local station about damage to the trunks of her city’s streetside trees because of the extreme cold.

She was pretty pleased with it but wished the reporter had included that the tree cracks occurred in places where they were structurally weak. R has taught me a lot about trees. This particular day, she pointed to one we were strolling past. Its lowest limb was almost as thick around as the trunk itself. You never want that, she said, because it’s bad for the tree. She added that in Europe, people are more obsessed than we are when it comes to making sure limbs are proportional.

We also talked about books. I love talking about books so much that if you get me started it’s pretty hard to shut me up. So I try to rein it in with most people. But R loves hearing about books as much as I love talking about them. We hadn’t really talked books until recently, because until last May, I’d been in grad school for the entire time I’ve known her. “Basic Research Methods for Librarians” and “A Rationale of Textual Criticism” are not books you recommend to regular people if you want them to be your friends. (Although I have to say “Class Warfare in the Information Age” is a worthwhile read for anyone who’s awake and alive in this particular historical moment.)

A few of the books I'm reading - or have recently read.
A few of the books I’m reading – or have recently read.

So when she asked what I’d been reading lately, first I thanked her for giving me a “pass-along” copy of “The Secret Life of Bees,” by Sue Monk Kidd, which I loved and had passed along to one of my workmates.

Then I told her I’d just finished “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and was starting “He Wanted the Moon” by Mimi Baird (with Eve Claxton), but had also recently read “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson (my Book Group pick – I’m hosting this Sunday), and am also reading “First Lessons in Beekeeping” by Keith Delaplane. I wasn’t recommending that one to her, but she knows about my impending beehive, so she knew that already.

Then, I remembered that Judith Claire Mitchell’s new novel “A Reunion of Ghosts” is out and I can tell everyone about what an amazing book it is and that they can run out and buy or borrow a copy. I started by telling R.

“It’s genius!” I said, “It’s a suicide note. The whole novel!”

Then I told her that there was a device Mitchell employed that I found particularly clever, but that I couldn’t say more about because it would be a spoiler. (If you read the book, you’ll know what it is when you get there.)

Here’s what I did tell her: That forty-something sisters Lady, Vee & Delph have communally decided to carry on the family tradition of dying by suicide. Unmarried (one widow, one divorcee, one “spinster”) and childless, they are the last of their line.

The novel chronicles four generations of Alters; the sisters have decided to document their family history, “to record all the sorrows and stumbles as well as the accomplishments and contributions.”

They are quick to point out that whoever writes their eulogies will have their work cut out for them.

“We’ve brought the family name no glory,” they write. “On the other hand, we’ve brought it no shame either, which is more than certain preceding generations can say. That first generation, for instance, which starred our infamous great-grandfather, Lorenz Otto Alter, World War I hero, World War I criminal. Genius and monster. He was the sinner who doomed us all.”

His explicit sin is the invention of poison gas. But Lenz’s wife Iris is also a gifted scientist. In an era where a man could have a child and career and a woman could have a child or a career, Lenz receives a Nobel Prize and Iris, who decides to devote herself to being a stellar mother and wife, becomes the first Alter to die by suicide.

If your idea of a good book is one that makes you laugh and cringe and not want to go to the bathroom unless you’re taking it with, this is your kind of reading material. Truth is though, I read it slowly – a bit each night. I wanted to keep the Alter sisters alive as long as I could. Taking my time was a way of prolonging their lives, as it were.

Mitchell moves backward and forward in time, weaving the stories of Alters past with the individual and communal stories of the sisters. With the exception of Vee’s husband Eddie, loved by all three, their primary intimate relationships are with each other. The more they write, the easier it is for readers to understand why, having shared everything, they would want to die together.

It all sounds terribly bleak, but Mitchell has managed to tell a story about generations of unbearable sadness with heart and humor. It’s one of the most unconventional and satisfying love stories I’ve read – maybe ever.

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