Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Reading an author’s first novel is always an interesting experience. Especially because in most cases I’ve already read a later work so my basis for evaluation seems a little unfair. That’s not to say that all first novels come out lacking in comparison to an author’s later works (in fact, sometimes it’s the reverse) but sometimes it is clear that the writer is still working through the questions of style or thematic project when the first novel is published. And really this makes sense because writing careers develop over a long time, have ups and downs, big triumphs along with mediocre successes, just like any other profession. Still, I enjoy reading first novels because I can get the sense I’m experiencing a real time development of the writer’s skills and confidence. 

Such it was with Alice McDermott’s A Bigamist’s Daughter. Now, I went into this reading with certain preconceptions about the kind of writer that McDermott is and so it was relatively fun to see how those presumptions held up. I’ve always considered McDermott the most non-flashy of American novelists – someone who writes subtly and tactfully about sex, who tackles domestic (I’m using this word in a positive way) and intimate themes about family and relationships with great insight. Well, to my surprise, The Bigamist’s Daughter is big on fairly explicit sex and it deals with what I would consider the rather provocative subject of vanity publishing. I say provocative because I think it was really ballsy of her to write so scornfully of vanity publishing in her first book. A daring or ingratiating literary feat. 

All that aside, McDermott’s fine touch is unmistakable in this early work. Here is the basic story: 25 year-old Elizabeth is an editor at a NYC vanity press. One afternoon a client comes in with a book about a bigamist. She goes through her usual schpiel, telling him how great it is, pretending she’s actually read it. The fact of the matter is, as long as he’s willing to pay, he’ll get his book. But Elizabeth and the writer end up in a sexual relationship and here is where the story takes a few surprising turns. As it turns out, Elizabeth‘s father kept another family and she’s living out the legacy of his duplicity – in her own romantic life and with her relationship with her mother.  

I nearly got the sense that there were two writers vying for territory in this book – one who wanted to write a chick-lit-esque satire on the life and amorous escapades of a young NYC editor and one who was really interested in exploring the painful territory of a parent’s influence on their children, the aftertaste of a strict religious upbringing as well as the pitfalls and victories of feminism. The first author was primarily concerned with creating a new kind of heroine, smart, tough and vulnerable all in one. The second author wanted to investigate the boundaries of fiction and how we self-narrate our successes and failures. Because of her skill, I think McDermott pulls off this combination but there were moments when I felt like I could see the seams.  

At least for me, the most satisfying part of reading McDermott will always be her writing. The startling little moments of intuition or exposure: 

She held herself before me rather delicately, as if her center were made of fragile glass. It made me feel childish, or fat, clumsy – a woman without a lover facing a woman with one. I glimpsed, for a moment, what Ward must have found so fascinating and tragic about her: that odd and delicate core, full of secrets. 

It occurs to her that every great realization given up, spoken, placed in another’s clumsy hands is, at heart, silly; every message from the grave a stale sermon or a slick song; every fiction, with all its attempts at sense and order, climax and resolution, words that mean something and change everything, laughable. Terribly laughable. Merely an excuse for fear, for laziness, for bad luck.  

Lovely, isn’t it? And her writing is filled with these keenly perceived moments.  

My next book will be That Night, published in 1987, five years after A Bigamist’s Daughter. I’ve already read That Night and loved it, so I’m really looking forward to this re-read.  

6 Responses to “Alice McDermott – A Bigamist's Daughter”

  1. Dewey

    Your first paragraph was really interesting to me, because I’ve found myself more and more drawn to first or second novels. Too many authors seem to get big contracts, and then I don’t know what happens — they rush or they’re not fine-tuning the books any more, or something. So many of the writers I used to love have just gotten unappealing to me lately, in their more recent books.

  2. Dorothy W.

    Interesting review — I’m glad you gave a little plot summary because I’ve read this, but had forgotten what it’s about. Now it comes back to me. This is the only McDermott I’ve read, and I wasn’t terribly taken with it, but perhaps it would be good to look at her other work??

  3. imani

    I find I feel contradicted in my eagerness to read first novels and my reluctance rooted in the concern that it simply won’t be as riveting as an author’s later works. Funnily enough though Sun Also Rises is, I think, Hemingway’s first novel, and I don’t think he came close to it in any of his later full length stuff.

  4. verbivore

    Dewey – I think you might be right about certain writers forgetting to work as hard on their later novels. I can see how it might happen, especially if the writer got a lot of critical acclaim for their first works. Perhaps its a kind of hubris that everything they write is anyway good.

    Dorothy – Oh I think you could definitely give McDermott another chance. If this had been the only one of her novels I had ever read I think I might have written her off completely. Not that there wasn’t something in it to be admired but it definitely did NOT do what some of her other works do. Charming Billy is very good as is That Night. I’m hard pressed to say which one I preferred.

    Imani – I’m with you on that same contradiction. Its hard to know how a writer changed without reading all their works – if I had all the time in the world I’d read three or four novels in the order they were written and then decide how I felt. I’ve never read The Sun Also Rises and I’m ambivalent about Hemingway in general. There’s a lot to learn from him, I think, but at the same time I’m not sure I’d enjoy it.

  5. LK

    I’m afraid I can’t get over how impressed that you used “schpiel” in a blog entry!

    I like the idea of reading an author’s works, from beginning to end. Now, that is a great challenge!

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