[8 July 2008]
Remember Schoolhouse Rock? “Conjunction Junction?” “I’m just a Bill?” How about the adjective ditty? “It was a hairy bear, it was a scary bear…so I unpacked my adjectives”?
What does Schoolhouse Rock have to do with Natasha Bauman’s debut novel? Well, Natasha sure brought her adjectives, a crushing load of ‘em, and all I could think as I plowed through this 422- page doorstop was the refrain “Good thing I unpacked my adjectives.”
Not nice, I know. But Bauman crams so much into the story of Ada Caswell Pryce, Victorian Bostonian, repressed wife, orchid hunter, and suffragette that the book goes from mildly unrealistic yarn to really annoying to toppling into hopeless silliness.
Ada, we are informed, is a bright, sensual woman squirming beneath husband Edward’s thumb. Though she was brave enough to attend Boston University and study Shakespeare whilst having an affair with her married professor, upon graduation there is nothing for a woman of her station to do but marry.
She lights on Edward. He’s handsome. He’s wealthy. Her dowager Brahmin mother approves. Ada fails to notice that Edward is a stick and a jerk until he forces her to practice Karezza. That’s sex without orgasm, should you wish to attempt it. Karezza is intended to bring the couple together spiritually, only Ada has a problem—it takes incredibly little to bring her to what Bauman calls “crisis”. This upsets Edward. A lot.
He is further upset when Ada takes a little stroll alone through a public garden, even angrier when she invites the housemaids to lunch and they all get tipsy. He presents Ada with a list of her transgressions. She’s horrified, but gamely tries to be a good wife. She fails miserably, continuing to do dumb things like giving her maid, Katie, a copy of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Women’s Bible and taking off in the middle of the night on Edward’s prized horse, Mercury.
Bauman has jammed so much into Ada’s predicament that it’s difficult to know where to start. Early feminism? Musings on gender roles and cross-dressing? Sidebars on the poor treatment of blacks and homosexuals? The brutality of orchid hunting? All of this and more crowd the novel, with Ada a burning, bristling little ball of repression.
Everything, from the sunshine forever sending rays across carpets to gripping the polished banister gives her an overwhelming thrill. Such thrills may constantly be found running up her spine, tingling in her groin, caressing her nipples, or rolling through her kid-booted feet. The language is appropriately overblown, nearly the stuff of romance novels. Peeping at Katie and coachman Liam making love in the carriage house, Ada finds Katie “in the final surge of her crisis.” Imaging this later, “She felt the atoms in her groin shift.”
The orchids Edward brings home “preen” not once but twice. Who knew flowers were capable of such things? Even worse are the orchid hunters Edward brings home, the African Walter and his Brazilian partner, Jao:
“As they passed by her, they ruffled the air, stirring up a scent redolent of the jungle, of the open air in the dead of night, of unnamed places and unidentified species, of undiscovered natural wonders.”
Recalling her college days with the other women: “They could smell the fecundity of their own minds.”
When Edward is hit with orchid mania, Ada also becomes fascinated with the exotic flowers, longing to hunt them herself. After some conniving, she escapes her lovely home, lops her locks, dresses as a man, and meets up with Walter and Jao, who grudgingly agree to schlep her to Brazil with them.
Bauman takes this opportunity to hammer home some observations about the male gaze, male sexuality, and all that fun Women’s Studies stuff about male drag. Once in lusty Brazil, Ada rapidly transforms from herself from soft Boston matron to Sheba of the Jungle, sleeping on the ground, swimming (!), eating strange plants, even finding the rare Cattleya labiata vera orchid Edward longs for. She is felled neither by a bout of Yellow Fever nor the big scary guys who kidnap her and return her to Edward’s suffocating hands. Our spunky Ada, with the help of a deux ex machina, will make her escape into a Harlequin romance ending.
Books like this puzzle me. The author’s note informs us Bauman is a former ballet dancer with an MFA in writing. She clearly knows her mechanics: if a red feather is mentioned on page 28, it is certain to reappear, its role neatly explained, by page 232. Her research is meticulous, as evidenced by the overabundance of period detail: a plate is not merely a plate, but Wedgewood, a rocking chair is a Liberty rocking chair, books have gilt-edged pages. Bauman’s training in ballet’s austere emphasis on clean lines and elegant form doesn’t transition to her work on the page. How does an obviously intelligent, highly educated individual produce a work with a heroine who names her orchid “Ghost Flower”?
I finished the book feeling like I’d just consumed a box of Hostess Sno-Balls. In an effort to regain myself, I pulled Amy Hempl’s Reasons to Live off the shelf and reread “In the Cemetary where Al Jolson is buried.” It was excellent brain floss.