(Hargrove Press, 2016)
Funny how memory works
By Tela Zasloff
Eva Grudin and Eric Joseph started renewing their relationship of 50 years ago—when they were high school sweethearts—by exchanging emails. The special richness, speed of exchange, and kind of intimacy this type of self-expression can provide, very soon convinced them that they should continue their shared correspondence in the form of a novel. So a traditional literary form became the vehicle for a contemporary one, and because these two authors are so in synch with each other, makes for a richly nostalgic and subtle story. It brings back not only the evolution of Sarah’s and Adam’s growing older over 50 years, but also the evolution, beginning in the 1960’s, of the American cultural experience in which that happens.
Emailing allows for communication more instant and spontaneous and directly dramatic than letters, but also, like letters, provides the distance some of us need to reveal our deepest emotions in writing rather than in person or by telephone. The speed of exchange makes it real theater, a dialogue going on before our eyes, without an omniscient author making explanations. These two authors know well how to capture the speech and tone of their characters—Sarah’s excitement with her renewed teenage passion for Adam together with her mature dismay and doubts at her dependency on it; Adam’s responding renewal of his old ardor coupled with his same charm but also his same old weaknesses that he’s experienced throughout his life; the reactions of Sarah’s other men and Adam’s other women to this “old people” romance that seems ridiculous and irresponsible, and damaging to all the people around them. In a carefully plotted sequence of events, we see each of the characters grow and shrink and grow. Just enough seeds are planted in earlier sections, to hint at how this story will end, although the specifics of the end are still a surprise. And Joseph/Adam adds to the theatricality with his writing to a friend alternate scenarios for some of the crucial meetups between Sarah and Adam, that puncture the characters’ sentiments with film-style satire and clowning and give Adam a way to separate himself from his own emotions.
Both authors are fine writers who reflect on the influence memory has on the present. In one email, early in the book, Grudin writes a message from Sarah to Adam based on her own memory, of how she started reading good literature after having had no guidance to reading good books in English from her immigrant parents. This stirs her co-author to remember his own reaction back then, which he puts in Adam’s email response. This exchange also stirs the memories of us readers who remember the books mentioned, those that influenced our own lifetime reading. Sarah wrote to Adam: “You were a guru of sorts to me, the literate American who could finally teach me what to read. . . .When I tell the story of why I’ve been in love with my first boyfriend, I say he never made fun of me, the way others did. . . .He gave me a copy of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and I was so grateful. . . .I discovered Nabokov, whose writing still makes me melt. It is you who made me literary. Goodnight, my Adam. Please, more tomorrow.” Adam replies with the memory that the Steinbeck was a book his father bought in a thrift shop—his father gloated characteristically over changing the price from 10 cents to 5. Then he remembers his reaction when he gave her the book: “Up early to be with you and talk. . . .Your memories are so vivid, funny how memory works. Now I remember when I gave you the book, your look made my heart leap up. Your smile—hard to describe what happened to me, but it was a trance. The feeling—a profound warmth that surged through my body. Since we started writing I too have been awash in memories—and intense feelings—actually I’ve been unable to concentrate on anything else—nervously waiting for your replies.”