SLEEPWALKING by Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead, 2014; originally published in 1982
It feels a bit silly and pointless to critique the 1982 debut of a prolific and well-established author on the grounds that it reads like a debut, but I have to get my criticisms out of the way: this book was remarkably clumsy—it reads like two concepts for two different novels stapled rather than sewn together.
The first of the two concepts is the story of ‘the death girls,’ three Swarthmore freshman who are each obsessed with a different female poet who died by suicide (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and an invented poet, Lucy Ascher). The novel introduces the three girls with the striking opening sentence ‘They talked about death as if it were a country in Europe’ and the prologue continues on to explain their strange friendship, predicated on a similar reverence for death—but then this conceit falls away completely. Naomi and Laura, two of the death girls, barely factor into this novel at all—this is the story of Claire, coming to terms with the death of her brother as well as the death of her favorite poet; her story is shared only by the parents of Lucy Ascher, who have fallen apart in the years since their daughter died.
Enter the second concept: an unsentimental excavation of the many faces of grief. In spite of the obvious thematic parallels between these two narratives that Wolitzer thought up, she is unable to integrate them into one another in a way that doesn’t feel forced and unnatural. The ‘death girl’ setup (as well as the introduction to Claire’s narratively pointless boyfriend, Julian) is ultimately the framework for the novel’s real aims, but it’s flimsy and unconvincing and honestly a bit of a letdown to anyone who approaches this looking for a Secret History-esque campus novel about close-knit friendships. (The bulk of the novel takes place off campus, to add insult to injury.)
But that’s all okay—again, it’s a debut by an author who’s been working for 40 years, so it’s hard not to give Wolitzer the benefit of the doubt. And in spite of all the aforementioned clumsiness, I really enjoyed reading this book. Wolitzer’s meditations on death and grief are surprisingly fresh and insightful, and though the other death girls don’t leave much of an impression, Claire is a remarkably well-drawn character. This was actually my first Wolitzer, and I’m interested to see how her style has evolved through the years.