Reflection: All Stories Are Love Stories


There is a special place in my book-filled heart for Elizabeth Percer, and I’ve been waiting for her latest, All Stories Are Love Stories (Harper, 2016), for well over a year. I reached out to Elizabeth after reading her first novel, An Uncommon Education (allow me the pleasure of introduction), and among the emails we exchanged during that time, she shared that she was working on a book centered around a major earthquake and fire hitting modern-day San Francisco.
 
All Stories Are Love Stories reads like a preemptive eulogy of San Francisco, a glorious city at the mercy of the merciless San Andreas Fault. We perceive roads, sidewalks and buildings, even people around us, to be such permanent things, carefully placed fixtures of the here and now. When those fixtures are also legendary, like the Golden Gate Bridge, Castro Theatre or Painted Ladies, they give off an eternal quality, as if lifted from the pages of a fairytale. That all of it perches atop the softest ground, under which pressure builds unabated, almost feels like a betrayal. Modern-day San Francisco may worship at the alter of technology, but ultimately answers to the unquestionable authority of nature. It is only a matter of time, and in All Stories Are Love Stories, that time is the evening of Valentine’s Day. The book spans just 24 hours, but as experienced in crises, time breaks open and behaves erratically, so that while on one page, a minute feels like an hour, on another, a millisecond changes ever little thing.
 
Rather than a sweeping story of a city in crises, the story zeros in on the lives of Max, Vashti and Gene. We meet all of them hours before their lives are upended, so that once the earthquake hits and the larger story of disaster unfolds, it is interrupted only by stories from these characters’ pasts. This is not about people in the midst of happily ever after when disaster strikes. This is about people in the midst of pain, confusion and heartache when disaster strikes, making it feel all the more ill-timed. You will enjoy these characters, especially Franklin (Gene’s partner), who says things like this:
 
Our city is dying. The soul’s sucked out of her. And I don’t care if speaking the truth makes me unpopular.
It’s a hell of a lot better than that crap you were dishing up. I mean, a twenty-first century Gold Rush? Millennial prospectors? You kids are nothing but starry-eyed naïfs with overworked vocabularies
” (107).
 
Perhaps rather than a eulogy, I should describe the book as an homage to San Francisco: Ina Coolbrith Park, Nob Hill Masonic Center, Grace Cathedral, Brunswick Hotel, Transamerica Pyramid and Huntington Park, among others, all make an appearance. I remember the five minute drive from my apartment in Berkeley to Aquatic Park, from where you can see both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, entry points to a floating city shrouded in fog. It is enlivening to be connected to something so grand, and though this book reminds me of that feeling, it also reminds me of all there is to lose. Whether it is a life, a relationship, a passion or a city, All Stories Are Love Stories explores the permanency of things, and offers shining examples of what may outlast even disaster.
 
Best, Yuri
@yuriroho

Labels: Contemporary, Fiction, Reflections, ,

Note: Lately


I suspect that my absence here means far more to me than it does to anyone else. Given this, I will say that the absence is felt strongly. I’m not sure what combination of life’s variables motivates this right here, but figuring that out is a top priority of mine. After starting and stopping too many books and then failing to choose any book at all, I was desperate for a straightforward recommendation from a reliable source; I’m skeptical of must-read lists, best-sellers receive far too much attention, and randomly browsing a bookstore rarely yields results. In late October, while scanning my own bookshelf with hands on hips for the nth time, I glimpsed An Uncommon Education and thought, I’ll ask Elizabeth Percer. She had proved exceptionally kind when I contacted her for a Q&A last year, so I thought I would test my luck again. Nevertheless, I was surprised to not only receive a swift response, but one that also reads like this:

I’m so sorry to hear that you’re in a book rut. Sometimes it’s good to let our fields go fallow. Walk around, read things other than books. Imagine the book you wish you could read, and tell people about it.”

Elizabeth ends her email with exactly the kind of recommendation that I was looking for: a single title and its author (So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell). I’ve since finished the book but I’m continuously re-reading it, settling in and opening to a random page, as if testing how much I remember. I love reaching the point in a book where no matter which page I flip to, I’m so familiar with the story that I can carry on without a hitch. So Long, See You Tomorrow is a simple story made rich by the details and emotions, much like our own lives. Books often have us dive into the ordinary lives of a cast of characters, only to lead us towards a bombshell that derails everything we’ve come to know and love/hate. In So Long, See You Tomorrow, the bombshell happens on the first page – Clarence kills Lloyd – and we work back and forth through time to answer all related questions. In her message, Elizabeth calls the book “generous and kind and brilliant,” and it doesn’t take long to discover exactly what that means. Maxwell takes great care in contextualizing the characters’ actions and motives, as if exonerating them, as if they have every reason in the world to behave exactly the way that they do. Perhaps we all do.
 
Best, Yuri
@yuriroho
Labels: Notes, Personal, , ,

An Uncommon Education

“There was something about her manner that was sobering me up, and I remember thinking at the time that it must have been the sharpness of hate. Looking back, that’s the funny thing. I remember thinking she just hated me. It didn’t occur to me that such vitriol could have nothing at all to do with me, that such profound emotion must run far deeper than any single relationship ever could.”

An Uncommon Education, p. 271
By Elizabeth Percer
Published 2012
Labels: Contemporary, Fiction, Quotes, ,

Q&A with Elizabeth Percer


 

I was entranced by Elizabeth Percer’s An Uncommon Education (read the post-reading here), and when I reached its final page, I felt like this:

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” (The Catcher in the Rye, Ch. 3)

I had the opportunity to interview Elizabeth, who proved herself to be as intelligent and charming as you would want an author of this sort of story to be. It is as if I had become so close to the characters that I felt relieved knowing that the whole time, they were in her hands. Enjoy.
 
Why are readers and authors attracted to coming-of-age stories?

I can’t hope to speak for all readers or authors, but I think that novels in particular (you don’t see that many coming-of-age short stories) give us the opportunity to understand transformation. If they’re really good, they give us a sense of transformation, too – a sort of cocoon-like experience of hunkering down and going within, emerging on the other side feeling somehow more vulnerable and touched by beauty. Coming-of-age stories are, by design, stories of transformation, and they invite that wonderful vulnerability and softness because they begin in a place of naivete, and end at the beginning of a new journey.
 
An Uncommon Education is divided into five parts, stretching from Naomi as a reserved and precocious 9-year-old, to her days at Wellesley, to her professional life after college. Which was your favorite part to write and why?

Oh, wow! What a question! I guess the wholly unsatisfying answer is that I don’t know which part I enjoyed writing most. Or perhaps it’s more appropriate to confess that, for me, writing a novel is more circular than linear — meaning that I tend to punch the whole thing out in rudimentary form, and then go back and lift and cut and revise and narrow, etc. I think it’s probably a lot like sculpting — I start with a great big hunk of unformed material and then chip away at it until it takes on a shape and life of its own. That said, I think my favorite section to reread is the end, but to tell you why would be to give away the story.
 
You attended Wellesley College. Near the end of the book, a Wellesley administrator comments that when a female U.S. president is finally elected, she will surely be a graduate of Wellesley. What does a young female student get from attending a school like Wellesley that she cannot get elsewhere?

What a great question — I wish I felt more qualified to answer it. The truth is that I think Wellesley has probably changed a great deal since I attended the school in the ’90s. One of the reasons why it’s a place that fascinates me so much is because it has evolved — along with the American idea of a woman’s ideals and capabilities — at a head-snapping pace — socially speaking.

I will say, though, that when I was a student there — and I don’t think this has changed — I benefited enormously from the hugely concentrated experience of living with 2,300 goal-oriented, fascinating women for the better part of four years. It gives one an idea of what the world might be like were women not inhibited in any way from pursuing their social, moral, and intellectual goals. The experience was frequently intense to the point of being uncomfortable for a thin-skinned introvert like myself, but I wouldn’t exchange it for the world. To this day, I share an intimacy with fellow Wellesley alumnae of many class years because we have that shared experience and foundation of knowing, in a way that not all women get to, the infinitely profound ways women can affect and inspire each other.
 
“God is nearest to those with a broken heart.” Do you think your any of your characters prove this true?

I hope so. I suppose, of course, it depends on one’s definition of God. In my own experiences, I’ve felt closest to God when I’ve softened and stopped imposing my own insistent parameters on spirituality and grace. I do think the very fact that a heart can break and then heal is evidence for God all on its own. I also think that spirituality cannot be found with the mind, and that to focus on proof and evidence is to go through a door backwards. I believe that most of us find God when our hearts are open, and many of us don’t have the courage to open them until they break first, and we see how they can heal. I can’t think of a single character in my book who doesn’t have a broken heart, but I think the ones who have the courage to acknowledge how painful that breaking can be are the ones who seem most at peace. Naomi, for instance, after embracing her mother despite the pain that involves, seems more infused with compassion for others and herself than does Teddy’s mother, who is very observant but turns away in fear from what she cannot understand.
 

What are some of your favorite coming-of-age stories?
Hmm. Whenever I get a “favorite” question, I have to qualify it with the fact that I am sure I answer it differently every time it’s asked. I’m a bit of a book slut, and just go with whatever I’m loving at the moment. There are too many wonderful books to ever possibly narrow it down. So here’s today’s list: David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, Jane Eyre, The Graveyard Book, and The Trumpet of the Swan (a boy and a swan — two for one!)
 
Of all the books you were required to read for high school English, which is still a favorite?

Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems and the stories of Grace Paley (I had a magnificent high school English teacher — shout out for Mr. Berger!)
 
Favorite literary quote?
OK. Today’s is…let me think of it…“I do love nothing in the world so well as you/Is not that strange?” (Benedick to Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing)
 
What was the last book you read? What are you reading now?
The last book I read was My Life in France by Julia Child. Right now I’m reading non-fiction anthologies. I’m a compulsive reader, so I have to read something, but while I’m working on another novel — which I am right now — I cannot read fiction. I’m way too porous. So I try to pick up something thoughtful and well-written in a different genre. I love the Best American Travel Writing series, as well as anything to do with food.
 
Are you working on a new book?

Yes! 😉 I’m working on my second novel, which is under contract with HarperCollins and my wonderful editor, Maya Ziv, again. It’s tentatively titled “All Stories Are Love Stories” and centers around a major earthquake and fire hitting modern-day San Francisco. Also, I just published a short book of poetry, Ultrasound, which is a meditation on pregnancy and early motherhood. Thank you for asking!

Labels: Notes, Q&A, , ,