Thirteen years ago, Ellen thought marriage meant love. Now she believes marriage means need, and when the need isn’t there, what comes next? On her wedding day, she had looked across the street from the church to the cemetery and imagined all the women who had come before her, who had married and borne children and died. Some day, she thought, that same peace will be mine. But perhaps what she saw was not peace, but silence. Perhaps those women entered the ground because they were tired and had nowhere else to go (21)
You know what the above passage reminds me of? — The Bell Jar. There’s something Plath-like about it. The same oppressive dome weighs on Ellen Grier in Vinegar Hill as it did Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar. Except in this story it manifests as dated pink plates, pink curtains, pink tablecloth, prescription sleeping pills and a neon green pre-decorated plastic christmas tree. This is what might have happened if Esther had married Buddy Willard. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves–this is not The Bell Jar and this is not Sylvia Plath. No where close (although Ansay is a good writer) This story is about a family’s struggle to survive domestic abuse, with a focus on a mother’s determination to do better for herself and children than what her husband has done for them in small town, midwestern USA.
In chapter six, while Ellen is dealing with the Christmas fiasco, she references what she used to call her future self, an “aqua lady”; a wife and mother of different circumstance who is perfection personified. The aqua lady is a stark contrast to Ellen’s reality. Ellen and her children Amy and Bert are forced to move in with her in-laws after her husband, James, loses his job. Financial hardship is only one hurdle for Ellen. She also has to deal with a complacent husband, who (1) has no desire to move out of his parents’ home, (2) has no desire to become a bigger part of his children’s life, and (3) let’s his mother and father belittle his family. This of course leads to marital strife. Ellen must compensate for everything that goes on and she is spread thin. Too thin. She can no longer be the workhorse for her mother-in-law, father-in-law and husband.
When a commercial interrupts, James watches that too. He loves TV more than anything he can think of. It is small and neat; it is easy to understand. Wives love their husbands. Children love their fathers (87)
I’m trying to sort out my feelings about James…what the hell is his problem? Why doesn’t he love his kids or wife? Why does he put up with his parent’s antics? He’s definitely a type of character that gets under my skin (absent fathers and weak-willed men). So why is he so tragic? Well…it turns out James, like Ellen, is a victim of domestic abuse. His father, Fritz, physically abused his wife Mary-Margaret and James. Their entire family dynamic was ruptured by a family secret that still feeds their dysfunction fifteen to twenty years later. And James has allowed his own wife and kids to be exposed to it. James takes out his frustrations on Ellen, but not in the same way his father did to his wife. James’ violence is muted. It’s in his inactions. But this violence isn’t lost on his children. Oh no, they are very aware. The reader witnesses Amy and Bert begin to lose their innocence; those moments when you realize your parents are imperfect beings and you mutate from their biggest fan to harshest critic. Kids pick up on everything–intrinsically. They can’t help it. They know their parents are not happy. So they are not happy.
This novel does a fine job of oozing despair and desolation. I think I mentioned Ansay is a good writer. It also doesn’t stumble with integrating a role of religion into their home life. But it does struggle with tempering the blame. To me it’s a bit heavy-handed with the anti-God* vibes. The whole “men oppress women–god made men and god is a man–thus god oppresses women, and oppression is bad–thus god is bad” logic is a bit much (ultra dramatic) Compounded with the anti-God angst and domestic depression** is a lack of likeable characters. Mary-Margaret being very unlikeable–what a piece of work she is…but then you read passages like this:
He surprised Mary-Margaret one cold, bright January day as she lifted her skirts in the backhouse. She did not have time to think. He hit her once in the forehead with a brick and pulled her out into the snow. Blood ran into her eyes as she ran blindly, her only thought to move, to keep moving, until the brick found the back of her head. Then she lay still as he emptied himself inside her, and when he finished, he pissed yellow circles around her body. The warmth of his urine melted the snow and stung against her face (165)
…and it puts things into perspective. There is a reason for everyone’s dysfunction.
* I can’t decide if I think it’s truly anti-God or just anti-Catholic.
** This brand of melancholy is not for everyone. Look this book up on goodreads and then filter the ratings for “two stars”. There’s some hilarity in the community comments.