I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
July 1, 2020: Abigail DeWitt
Here’s the beginning of Abigail DeWitt’s novel, News of Our Loved Ones.
Sirens. Was that what she’d heard? Yvonne dreamed about air raids when there weren’t any, slept soundly through the actual warnings. At first, every siren sent the whole family racing to the cellar; they crouched together in the dark, making themselves as small as possible, their faces hidden in their knees. But after a while, they gave up going downstairs.
The end of this first chapter is stunning in its use of understatement and restraint.
As far as the book as a whole, I was engaged from the beginning and even more so, the more I read. I particularly enjoyed that the story was not told in a linear fashion. Figuring out how a new life bumped up against people I’d already met kept me engaged and fascinated. Imagine standing in one spot and throwing stones into a pond with the ripples overlapping here and there. With each throw, the story of the Delasalle Family gets bigger.
The novel begins in occupied France. First we hear from Yvonne in Normandy and then from her sister Genevieve in Paris. The book contains shifts in time and place. Multiple points of view. We emerge with a story, yes, but more importantly with a family. In Part Two, we jump the Atlantic and a number of years to a grown-up Genevieve with children of her own.
With Abigail’s descriptions, characters rise up off the page. I want to highlight two descriptions, both of mothers. The first is from the title chapter and Genevieve is our narrator.
Tante Chouchotte was waiting for me at the station in Paris. “Cherie,” she said, taking my face in her hands. Whatever had once unsettled me about her moved me now: her deep, smoke-ravaged voice, her tangle of gray hair, even the gold cap that had appeared on her front tooth. She was taller and bonier than my mother, and much more brilliant…but their smiles, despite the perfect teeth of one, the gold glint of the other, were identical. And they had the same gray eyes. She was like my mother, I thought, but with none of the moralizing.
The second comes from the chapter entitled “Mathilde,” and our narrator is Marie-Claire.
My mother never spoke of the way she was treated, but she never spoke much at all. When she confronted my father with the hairpin, she set it on the kitchen table instead of the bowl of soup he was expecting, and returned to the stove to ladle out my dinner. More discussion would have struck her as ridiculous as the hairpin itself. She was so averse to waste of any kind–words, time, money–that even the slenderness of her bones seemed a measure of her thrift.
Back in January when I read this book, I’d underlined a paragraph that began with all the boys dying in the war and ended with the beautiful passage below. Rereading that paragraph this week, it made me think of this strange time we’re living in now with all the deaths and sadness due to the virus.
And yet the leaves filled out on the trees and the forest rustled all summer long with its deep shade, its shifting light; the meadows filled with blueberries, and at dusk, while the valley exhaled the warm scent of hay and lupine, the snow on the mountains turned pink.
Abigail is a dual citizen of France and the United States and is the author of two other novels, Lili and Dogs. She lives in the mountains of North Carolina, near Asheville. And you can listen to her talk about News of Our Loved Ones with Landis Wade on Charlotte Readers Podcast.
Stay well and…
Come back on JULY 1st to read how ABIGAIL DEWITT spends her days.