Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Small But Significant We

Continuing my project of rereading all her works, I just finished Marge Piercy's eighth novel, Fly Away Home (Summit Books, 1984).

When I was following these books as they were published, I thought that her novels alternated between so-so and brilliant.  I'm not so sure about that now.  Perhaps because I've become better informed about class, I now appreciate novels like The High Cost of Living more than I did the first time I read them.  Like many readers, I'd lazily pigeonholed Fly Away Home in memory as basically a romance novel, even though I also remembered its background of gentrification and the politics of real estate.

Fly Away Home is the story of Daria Walker (née Porfirio) a forty-three-year-old housewife and author of cookbooks, the mother of two grown daughters, married to a successful Boston lawyer.  Though she initially embraced domesticity, she stumbled onto her second career as a writer and become quite successful at it.  As the novel opens, she feels like a success: a happy woman in love with her husband who loves her back.  Of course things immediately begin to unravel, as she encounters some angry working-class activists who blame her husband for the deterioriating conditions of the houses and apartments they rent, and for a suspicious string of fires that have killed at least one person.  They also blame her, though as far as she knows those properties have nothing to do with her.  Then she begins to suspect that her husband is having an affair with another woman. When her suspicions are confirmed and he leaves her, she falls in with the activists, learning how to research her husband's real estate dealings.  At first she does so to improve her position in the divorce settlement, because her husband does his best to keep her ignorant of his finances, which are also hers.  But when she discovers how shady his real-estate dealings really are, she gradually becomes politicized and consequently becomes romantically involved with one of the activists, a carpenter named Tom Silver who shares her working-class background and her upwardly-mobile aspirations, but also has a background of leftist politics.  In the process she finds community among the activists in a neighborhood much like the one she grew up.

So yes, there are elements of romance here.  But they're interwoven with the politics.  (I suspect that any fiction by a female writer with a love interest will tend to be read as romance, whatever else is going on in it.)  Daria's ex-husband's personal failings are likewise connected to his abandonment of his original ideals of public service, and his embrace of predatory capitalism.  At the same time she's becoming involved with Tom, she also takes in another activist, a young Puerto Rican graduate student and single mother who's been burned out of her apartment, and builds a new household with her and her daughter much more readily than she embraces her coupling with Tom.  Her career as a writer and cooking teacher was already established before these changes in her life, and gives her something to fall back on to support herself as her husband withdraws from her.

It occurred to me as I read that Fly Away Home is a mystery novel, with a political difference.  Even strongly feminist mystery writers like Sara Paretsky tend to protagonists who fit the individualist mold of the genre: lone wolves who solve cases by themselves, whose helpers and informants are part of the furniture rather than full participants in the detection.  But Daria joins a group of people who haunt the city's property records, tracing ownership of the buildings they live in to discover who is responsible for the deteriorating infrastructure, to say nothing of the murderous fires either welcomed or actively set to collect insurance money and drive out lower-income tenants.  Daria is the protagonist and viewpoint character, but she comes late to the research and is never at its center: the other activists are just as important, and teach her the detective skills she uses.

Fly Away Home is primarily a good read.  It starts off slowly to build Daria's backstory, but rapidly picks up steam.  Even though I remembered the outcome pretty well, I kept picking it back up to go on reading when I should have been doing other things, like writing this blog.  Its politics, as usual with Piercy's work, are still timely, and nonfiction books like Samuel Delany's Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999) and Sarah Schulman's The Gentrification of the Mind (2012) cover some of the same territory.

Next will be Piercy's humongous historical novel of World War II, Gone to Soldiers, and its associated book of poems, Available Light.