Feb 24, 2013

Book Review: Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer

Frances and Bernard
by Carlene Bauer
9780547858241, $23, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Beautiful. Heartbreaking. I fell in love with the language of it and the romance of it and the way my heart still hurts now that I've finished it.

It's brilliant but terrible in its lack of traditional happy ending. Both parties end up with - as harsh as this sounds - what they deserve, but God it still hurts.

I never expected to find myself enjoying a book that spoke so much about Catholic God and faith, but they speak of it in a way that's palpable to an agnostic Jew, which I think really says a lot. I don't shy away from conversations about faith, and in fact, find belief and adherence to those beliefs and searching for those beliefs to be a very real and human and admirable thing. The way the author intertwined the search for faith and the belief in religion with the search and belief in love was, for lack of a better description, done incredibly well. It didn't feel too didactic or heavy-handed, probably because Frances was so pragmatic about the whole thing. To say I enjoyed it doesn't pay homage to the way my heart feels torn apart, but throughout 3/4ths of this book, I did absolutely enjoy reading about Frances and Bernard falling in like and then in love and then I had to figure out what to do about how very much I respected Frances for her convictions and living up to them while I also very much believe in Bernard's declarations of love and try to live my own life believing in it.

*Spoiler alert in the next paragraph!

The one tiny glitch that I am still thinking about is how Bernard's character was framed after his marriage to Susan - all his infidelities. We are absolutely influenced by those we love most, and so though it is possible that Frances might have been influenced for the worse by Bernard's character, was it not also possible that in marrying Bernard, Frances could have been the making of him instead? Was Bernard's character allowed to run out of check because of Susan's character, herself?

That aside, it's going to take me a little while to build back up from all that again. Some books are supposed to make you feel like that.

I feel like I underlined half the book, but here are some particular favorites:

"I thought I had been growing up by unleashing my strength and mind onto the world, by imposing myself and not being afraid of it, but this suddenly began to seem like a lifetime of tantrums. I'd gotten used to having too much, at having whatever I willed become real, which had made my will promiscuous. Not strong at all." (19)

"She is a girl, but she is also an old man, and I see that there is intractability in her heart that may never be shattered. Perhaps that is because she grew up among women who love harder than they think, and she has strengthened her innate intractability in order to keep tunneling toward a place where she could write undisturbed by the demands of conventional femininity. So she may always think harder than she loves." (48)

"My life without you would certainly be less. That is one think I know." (77)

"'Bernard,' I said, and took his hand. 'No, no, that's not enough,' he said. He took the package out of my other hand, put it down on a chair, and then pulled me to him. He was right. That wasn't enough." (81)

"I wonder what of your mother was encoded in you without your knowing; what of your life is a letter she wrote you that you have just opened and will take your whole life to read." (85)

"...people who made a point to weave themselves together because they had poured out their blood among one another. They may be annoyed with each other, but they do not hate each other. They understand that annoyance is a fair price to pay for the strange protective love of family." (132)

"You rely on your books for things the rest of us search for in people... 'Your books need no help from me. They are for you alone. When you don't want to be alone, then here I am.'" (177)