Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a collection of tales about discovery and transformation, which, as main character Miranda relates in Aoibheann (pronounced Ee-van) Sweeney’s novel Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking, “rarely ended happily; the process of transformation of hands turning into claws and feathers sprouting on shoulders was sometimes a punishment, and sometimes a reprieve.” Take the story of Narcissus, the beautiful water spirit who metamorphosed into a flower after falling in love with his own reflection, or Galatea, the statue-turned-human with whom Pygmalion, her sculptor, fell in love.
As Miranda Donnal’s father holes his family up on remote Crab Island off the coast of Maine to finish his own translation of Metamorphoses, Miranda is submerged in a world of fabled characters. After her mother disappears while boating and her father becomes increasingly remote, Miranda must find comfort in the world of myths and imagination that she creates for herself—and later, by shaping her own transformation when she accepts a job as a typist at a classical library her father helped establish in Manhattan.
Not until she reaches New York does Miranda realize that her sheltered lifestyle on Crab Island kept her from discovering her own identity. Life in Greenwich Village brings Miranda’s complicated emotions to the surface as she assesses her own sexual individuality and rediscovers her love for her father, which had long since been subdued by his solitary ambiguity.
Sweeney models her novel on Book I of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, dividing it into three parts: the age of silver, when humankind begins to establish itself as the dominant race; the age of bronze, when men take up arms and war is waged; and the age of iron, when jealousy and other vices begin to take hold of man’s mind. Sweeney pairs the physical isolation of Crab Island with the psychological isolation of Manhattan, where, although surrounded by millions of people, Miranda is unable to emotionally establish herself.
Sweeney displays a crisp style that casts into sharp relief the complicated array of emotions running through Miranda’s head and heart as she leaves her coastal home behind:
Ahead of the ferry, heavy and milky green in the sunlight, was the Statue of Liberty, the water like a carpet at her feet. The sight and smell of the sea almost hurt, it was so close and familiar, like the delicious smell of sheets when you are too tired to sleep; it was already September and I could picture the bay in front of our house, the islands just beginning to color, rafts of eiders by the shore, eagles and ospreys on the hunt, readying to leave for warmer coasts.
Uncertainty and reluctance are ever-present in Among Other Things as Miranda must sort through relationships, her discovery of love, and her obscure family history. Befriended by both a local socialite and a street-corner coffee vendor, Miranda—whose name in Latin means “to be admired”—must discover who she can trust and who she must avoid.
Miranda’s transformation from sheltered islander to forlorn city girl wouldn’t seem so out of place in the classical poem that her father has committed his life to translating. The parallels between Miranda’s makeover and Ovid’s transformations are anything but vague. At one point, Miranda even believes she can sense the presence of the gods that were “always soaring from one place to another, spying on nymphs from above.”
Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking is a fresh, intriguing perspective on coming of age. Sweeney’s wandering, convoluted episodes are well matched to the wandering and convoluted story of a girl’s life. Sometimes monotonous but always focused, Among Other Things is not only intriguing, but likely to entice anyone into what lured Miranda and her father onto Crab Island—“Ovid’s spell.”