The first is fiction. The second (in spite of weak protestations on the author's part) is not. The first is serious, well-written prose. The second ... well, time will have to tell. I love reading Susan Branch. Goudge is elegant and old. Branch's easy, friendly style makes me feel like we're curled up on the sofa together, sharing secrets. I've been longing to finish Goudge so I can read Branch.
As I read A City of Bells, expecting to find an all-time-favorite-novel, I circled page numbers and underlined (albeit with pencil) wonderful quotes. And sometime I'll get around to sharing them with you. Goudge is an examiner of existence and the human heart, and she shoots straight at you. Here's a quick example at the end of the book:
"And suffering, he had discovered, could be the gateway to renewal, than which no more glorious experience can be man's on earth." (303) What a statement! The next time some woeful person asks, "If there's a God, why must humans suffer?" perhaps I'll answer, "Because suffering can be a gateway to renewal, a glorious experience humans cannot have otherwise." Hmm.
And how 'bout this beautiful lyric, showing how death is conquered: "'This shall die,' says death, his sickle laid to a blade of wheat in its glory and the love of a man in his pride; and the fallen seed is a green shoot and the dead love is a poem." Chew on that for a minute or two.
Branch's book is quite different, a sincere account of one woman's personal history in the 1970s, in her youth and heartbreak. But Branch is always funny and light-hearted. She's an artist, and each page is hand-written and each page has hand-painted illustrations and quotations. It's a delight for the eyes. I turned the page (56, in fact) and read what must be the nugget of the book:
* * * * *
"I turned my face up and asked him, because I really wanted to know, 'Can't we just make things the way we want them to be? Isn't life like a choice? Like you decide what's going to happen and then you just make it that way?'"
* * * * *
From reading other Branch books, I believe she views her life this way. Even as an early-20s, naive (by her own admission) girl, she believed that tenet fully. She was informing her then-boyfriend (later husband), a go-getter businessman, up-and-coming uber-confident, risk-taking young man with the world tied around his pinky ... she was telling him how to make your world what you want it to be.
I wanted to underline it, I really did. I wanted to star it and circle the page and put a star in the margin. But I can't bring myself to sully Branch's art. How do you take your pencil to someone else's art, her life, her belief in fairy tale, and scratch around it because you'd like to look back at your own 52 years and see such confidence?
But I don't. I don't think my life has ever been my own choice. I feel, year after year, that life has happened to me, sometimes as a summer sunrise but often as a train wreck. We make choices and find out they led us down the wrong road. We scavenge around for the trappings of a fairy tale life, but they're just that: trappings.
I do wonder -- is Branch's public, fairy tale self an image presented for the sake her audience, complete with sparkly wonder and kitty kisses, teapots and Beatrix Potter figurines? How deep does the fairy tale girl go? I too can surround myself with the trappings of sweetness and beauty (and they are wonderful), but they don't fill the void in me. There is a void that longs for God. And there is a void that longs for love. And there is a void that longs for personal self-fulfillment and meaning. This last one varies from person to person. Susan Branch filled hers.
She said that when she told those words to her boyfriend, that's the moment he fell in love with her. She can call it a belief in fairy tales, but it has a lot more steel to it than that. It sounds more like the ripping of your personal American Dream from the matted stuff of life and weaving it into your own garment. I'm not quite sure how a person does that. I haven't had the ability.
If there's more to tell about Branch's book, I'll let you know. She's a read and a re-read, that's for sure. Everybody wants more time on the sofa with a good friend.