My husband was very pleased when he gave me Katie Ward’s Girl Reading for Mother’s Day. “It’s meta,” he said. “You see? Get it?” I did, and I was so much intrigued that instead of letting it languish on my TBR shelf for a few years as I often do, I read it straight away.
Girl Reading calls itself a novel. I’m not so sure: it is seven short stories, linked thematically but otherwise only by the most tenuous of connections. Each story grows out of a visual image of a girl or woman reading. Usually, the story is a vivid imagination of how that image came to be. The stories revolve around the inner lives of the women, not around the reading per se; often the book is incidental to the personalities involved. The writing is lively, and the project is ambitious: what draws us, over and over, to this image of the reading woman, with her inner, hidden life?
The stories are roughly chronological. The first, “Simone Martini,” based on an Annunciation triptych from the end of the thirteenth century, tells of the orphan who sat as a model for the Virgin Mary, demurely holding her book of wisdom. Young Laura, barely literate herself, in trouble as Mary must have been, has her own need of wisdom. This is one of the best stories, a great introduction to the novel, and it ends on a chilling note, reminding us of how little really goes into books: “Many details go unrecorded.”
Ward skims over place and time, moving from the life of a deaf Flemish maid to an independent woman reading alone in a bar in 2008, and even beyond, into a future when books have become scarce. Her images are all Western, which is a bit of a limitation of imagination, and one or two of the stories are slightly less effective than others (such as the story in which the main character’s dead lover appears to her at the end.) But for the most part, this was a wonderfully enjoyable debut novel. I am a fan of the short story, and don’t usually suffer from wanting it to expand, but I was ready for a couple of the stories to go on: “Immaterialism,” set in the modern day, in particular, left me wanting more details, more of the characters, more of the writing, just… more. That’s not a criticism. That’s a delight.
So — here I am, a girl reading Girl Reading. Very meta. Have you read it? What did you think?
(Oh — I almost forgot my main nitpick about this book! Although the stories are all based on images, she doesn’t include the images in the book, even those that cannot be found online. I think the book would have been much improved by a section of color pictures!)