A Woman Walks Into Her Therapist’s Office…
|Woody Allen’s films have finished a variation of that set-up in a myriad of ways, nearly always involving self-deprecation or a slash at the shrink. Sylvia Brownrigg’s latest two novels give us two variants of her own … one straight-up woe, the other straight-up humor. In both cases, the therapists end up with a bruised eye. If you haven’t read Brownrigg’s previous novels – The Metaphysical Touch and Pages For You – you haven’t missed all that much. They were classic cases of a writer learning her trade with all the attendant missteps of over-writing, looonnggg passages of philosophy-laden emails, and titillating bi-sexual love affairs. However, with Delivery Room and Morality Tale, Brownrigg has proven that, like fine wine, she’s a writer that just needed a bit more time to mature.|
Confession: I’ve spent some time on a therapist’s couch. It wasn’t pretty. How could it be? Untroubled people are rarely the ones who fork over hard-earned dollars to have someone listen to them talk. Whether you head into that office to fool yourself or heal yourself, it can be more painful than a drug-free tooth extraction by the time you’re finished (if there even is such a thing as finishing). So when I read the backcover blurb of Sylvia Brownrigg’s The Delivery Room – “Mira Braverman listens to the stories of her troubled patients … illness … Serbia …grief … divorce … infertility …” – I girded myself for the despair to come.
How do you prefer your therapists? Professorial – hair short and neatly trimmed, tiny glasses, long face creased in all the proper places? Or motherly – ample body housing an ample heart, eyes a warm, inviting shade of brown? The latter is Mira Braverman, a Serbian-born therapist, married to Englishman Peter Braverman. They have a quiet and satisfying marriage and live in 1998 London. Peter has coined the phrase “Delivery Room” to describe Mira’s office – the place where her patients deliver their stories. Unfortunately, as a part of an occasional predilection to repetitive writing that mars Brownrigg’s otherwise fine prose, the reader is reminded no fewer than three times that Peter is the author of this phrase.
Over bangers-and-mash dinners with Peter, Mira, in what feels like a rupture of the patient-client contract, dishes dirt on her clients; to her credit, she keeps their names hidden behind such monikers as The Bigot, The American, the Aristocrat, and The Mourning Madonna—I began to wonder what my therapist might have called me. This chink in Mira’s professional armor was welcome for what it finally revealed about her – in spite of the calm, unreadable demeanor, she might be just as flawed as the rest of us. When it comes to the actual therapy sessions, Brownrigg uses shifts in point-of-view to great advantage, lifting what could be the hackneyed therapy scene into the realm of unique. In one paragraph, we hear Mira’s thoughts on the upcoming session:
The Bigot. Mira would have referred him to someone else months go, she could see the problem from the start, but he himself had been referred to her by Marjorie, who thought Mira strong enough for him, and Mira did not want to lose Marjorie’s good opinion by admitting that she too had been unable to stomach the man, his aggressive provocations, his divorce acids, his suave sarcasms. That was his finger on the buzzer now and Mira’s whole body tensed in a spring action, like a trigger.
Then, in the next paragraph, we switch directly into the Bigot’s thoughts:
And she only got uglier, it seemed. The psychotherapist. Fat in her big skirts like a peasant, like a Serbian peasant. She probably had a passel of soup-sipping relatives still in Serbia and they were probably all torturing Croats and Muslims at this moment, or had been until the UN came in to stop the savageries – rendering people legless with mortars and shelling, raping their wives and destroying the future for their children. Brutes. It was why she kept such a low profile about her nationality, though Howard had learned some time ago that she was a Serb. He had made her tell him. ‘It seems ironic,’ he had said to her in response, ‘to be lectured at on how to live properly by someone whose nation is the scourge of Europe.’ ‘Do I lecture you?’ she had asked with one of those annoying half-smiles they used to taunt you. ‘It’s implied,’ he answered. ‘You’re on the right side, there. I’m on the wrong.’
Must be quite fun to write a character like The Bigot and spew all that venom. In any case, here we see the other big tag for Mira’s character – she’s a Serb. But Brownrigg mines this detail clumsily. All the appropriate Serbian facts are in place: Mira has a sister, nieces, nephews, and friends in this war-torn land; there are frantic phone calls, loved ones who go missing, and everyone fears the bombs and hordes the necessities. But other than a vivid snippet of a memory of Kosovo, the beat of Mira’s Serbian heart is faint. Instead, we’re told while in Graham’s perspective that Mira says things such as “We’ll go to café. Would you like to take satchel?” or by The Bigot that she wears “big skirts like a Serbian peasant.” Mira seems like a paper doll that sits in a chair and while other characters throw Serbian details on her to see what sticks.
|Perhaps the problem arises from Mira’s anemic dramatic arc. We are told early on that in her youth she had an abortion, then left Serbia, and now feels a pull to return. “There was a place still unresolved. There was Kosovo. Should she go back?” Though variations of this question keep skipping through Mira’s mind, she never even ventures to the phone to check on flight availability. Mira is best read as a conduit to Peter and his son Graham’s narrative, and even the stories of her patients. If the point is to show that even though Mira is a therapist, she is as flawed as the rest of us, Mira does her job as a character adequately. Unfortunately, given the strength of the novel’s other characters, Brownrigg surely could have stretched her creative wings with Mira further.|
Peter, an Oxford Russian professor, is predisposed to listen to Mira’s clients’ tragedies since he’s been the victim of one himself: his long-ago casual fling with a girlfriend results in an unwanted pregnancy, she promises to abort the baby, doesn’t, then shows up on Peter’s doorstep with Graham, age seven. Now, Peter’s son Graham is all grown up, recently married to Clare (who is eager for a baby), yet still suffers from extreme discomfort around his father. Peter tries unsuccessfully to bond with Graham over strolls in a local park with Peter’s dog Molly.
Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t work. In a delightfully English detail Peter decides to send Graham a letter rather than phone him with news of his cancer diagnosis. The threat of teary sentimentality briefly shadows the book, but Brownrigg shows herself to be a mature writer who likes her characters. Graham and his wife move to London and start dealing with doctor consultations and drug therapies, those nasty details that Mira and Peter are too emotionally swamped to handle. As Peter’s cancer claims victory, Mira’s therapeutic wisdom fails her. Counterbalanced against Peter’s death and Mira’s diminution is Graham, who rises from the ruins of his former infantile behavior and comports himself like a proper chap in the end, even succumbing to his wife Clare’s wishes to start a family. His and Peter’s story is the novel’s center. Please disregard the therapist in the chair.
Of all the stories that are delivered in The Room, Kate/The Mourning Madonna’s story stands out. Kate arrives in tears for her first session with Mira; she is mourning the death of her near-term stillborn baby. This is delicate territory, loaded with cliffs where one could fall off into melodrama. After Kate’s first session, weeping never again takes center stage. Instead, Kate’s grief is dealt with not like a step-laden program, but like the kind of messy path it is. At one point, Kate announces,
You know, I’ve started to hate people. I never used to. William was always the misanthrope, and my role was to persuade him that people weren’t as bad as all that. But they are as bad as all that. They don’t know a bloody thing.
Where Kate ends up a year later, at novel’s end, is a different, yet still not happy place, but at least it’s an honest place. Mira, now on medication to hold her together in the wake of Peter’s death, barely hears Kate tell her she’s ready to end the sessions. Mira does, however, have the wherewithal to recognize that Kate had “developed a strength” then questions her role in that change: “Hard to know for sure.” Is Mira hoping that she herself will find that kind of strength to navigate widowhood? She turns to Graham for bill-paying help, she turns to drugs to keep her mental balance, and she turns to candle-lit churches that remind her of her childhood. Clearly she doesn’t believe that therapy will give her that strength. It seems that all her years spent sitting in a chair and listening have left her bereft of the ability to communicate; perhaps therapy has been but a convenient cloak for Mira to hide behind. In the final pages, she awkwardly confesses a secret from her past to Graham. It seems she might be capable of building a raft to escape from the Delivery Room. Hopefully, she will use Kate as her beacon.
In spite of lots of woe, this novel does not smother us in therapeutic sadness. This was a source of wonder for me. How did that not happen? Brownrigg sets her characters spinning in their orbits and, lo and behold they live their messy lives more off the couch than on it. The Mourning Madonna becomes The Misanthrope. The Bigot becomes The Doting Father. The Aggrieved Son becomes The Proud Father. And the Therapist becomes The Widow. The moniker everyone starts with, thankfully, is not what he or she ends with. Therapy put in its proper place: a wafer of indulgent time that has only the slightest of bearings on daily life.
Morality Tale is appropriately named. This novel has one voice, one protagonist, and one narrative thread: a shotgun layout, so to speak. Compared with the web of stories in Delivery Room, this novel is downright simple in its linear structure. But don’t confuse simplicity for lack of depth. Humor complicates this novel in delicious ways. Do we really need one more book about divorce, adultery and step-parenthood? Yes, because it’s intelligent and funny. Not over-the-top-everything-for-a-gag funny. But funny in all-the-places-you-need-to-laugh-when-things-get-too-sad funny.
|An interesting acknowledgement comes from Brownrigg at the end of Morality Tale: “This novel comes straight from the dark solitary heart of the middle of the night.” That may be a strange place to spawn comedy, but nevertheless: the book made me laugh. Here’s a protagonist who’s naïve in all the perfect spots – the downsides to a relationship with a married man, the difference between romantic affair and marriage, the shelf life of an ex-wife’s wrath, and what it takes to mother stepchildren beyond the ability to carpool and pack lunches. There’s such honesty in our unnamed protagonist’s admissions and honesty can be very funny. Here’s Christmas in the San Francisco Bay Area town where our protagonist has set up her not-so-happy life:|
I tried especially hard to be happy, as my husband urged me to be, that he and I were going to the fancy Christmas dinner at the hotel up the hill, as we did every other year when the boys were not with us. (Our holidays had a binary, on/off quality in those years: with, then without; with, then without.) The hotel would serve crab cakes and lamb roasts and some ice-cream confection for dessert, and we would save the cocktail stirrers for Alan and Ryan who could stab each other with them later. My husband and I would both eat and drink more than we usually did, then wonder why we came home feeling bleary and bloated. Merry Christmas, he would say with brandy on his breath, before falling into a heavy, early sleep, from which he would wake uncomfortably, around midnight, looking for Tums.
This is one of those reading moments where whole lives come into focus in one paragraph and you say, “I know these people!” She’s trying to be happy, but there are her step-kids stabbing each other with cocktail stirrers and her husband collapsed in a food coma. It’s not the life she imagined when he walked up to her at the café and told her he wanted to keep her like a key: “I want to put you in my pocket. I want to hold you close, make you safe, calm, and happy.” Okay, so I wouldn’t fall for a line like that, but I love how much I learn about this woman because she does.
Our protagonist is in her thirties and never thought she’d find love. She was in the midst of café-writing a novel called “My Dictionary of Betrayal” when her future-husband walked into her life. Too bad he didn’t divulge he was “technically still married” and spare her backing into the role of marriage-wrecker. However, her humor serves her well when it comes to bearing up under the rage of ex-wife “DDT, dear darling Theresa”:
Nobody wants to be a second wife. It’s nobody’s great ambition in life, to inhabit days loud with shouted schedule conflicts, telephones slammed down or cursed into, cars speeding away with the hysterical exclamation points of burnt rubber. It’s not what you dream of for yourself when you’re a lively teenager, say, writing essays, playing volleyball (one of the great team sports), or walking your dog across footbridges under overcast skies. … You’re never going to get the kind of joy you might have hoped for when you walk into a marriage that used to belong to somebody else. It’s like moving into a new house that still has half the previous owner’s furniture in it. You’d like to get rid of the all-plaid living room set, but somehow you’re stuck with it forever.
In my case, the plaid living-room set was called Theresa.
I admit it, I grinned, then laughed out loud when I read this. I imagined myself back playing with my 7-year-old friends and saying, “Let’s pretend we’re getting married for the second time.” And that plaid living-room set? Priceless. Unlike in Delivery Room when we are beat over the head with the meaning of the title, this image of Theresa as the plaid living room set comes up a few more times, each used in a way that reflects back to this original sentiment. It remains fresh throughout.
So what has driven our protagonist to reflect on her second marriage? Richard. Richard is introduced so obliquely on page one that I first thought our protagonist was mourning over the loss of a pet:
He told me to stop thinking about him, so I tried. Tried to clear all the thoughts of him out of my head, like clearing away the ornaments after Christmas is over, taking them down from the tree and collecting them off the ground where they’ve squatted in dusty nests with the pine needles and ribbon bits and unseen shavings of wrapping paper.
Richard is an envelope salesman who frequents the stationery store where our protagonist works. He’s a bit like an oversized Leprechaun and couldn’t be further from her trim haggard husband if she’d ordered him that way. Richard seduces our protagonist with stories – mostly crazy stories about his childhood in Chicago. The stories seduce her and make her realize what a horrible second-wife roller coaster she is on. She fantasizes about Richard, keeps letters he writes to her that start “Angel”; in other words, she wants to change over to the romance-roller coaster. One day, while she’s sits on a park bench with Richard and is about to tell him why she has been writing “The Dictionary of Betrayal,” her husband strolls by and explodes with indignation. And here’s where we head back to therapy – couples therapy. This time the therapist is of the professorial sort, a Dr. Edward Puffin:
Dr. Edward Puffin was a silver-haired, pointy-goateed man with a mild, sleight-of-hand voice, who in another setting might pass for a magician or a wizard. There did seem to be a supernatural element in his work: sometimes you felt that he succeeded by hypnotizing the warring parties assembled in his room, and briefly brainwashing them into a cessation of hostilities so they could stay together for a little longer at least. He might have counted to ten then, unbeknownst to us patients, snapped his fingers, collected his hefty fee, and sent the couple on their way.
Yes, the therapist with a black eye, Dr. Puffin. Of course, something does happen in this office, which shakes up both the protagonist and her husband. When she confesses to Dr. Puffin that, “He used to say he wanted to keep me like a key,” Dr. Puffin thinks she is talking about Richard instead of her husband and comments how that was an unreal promise, a temptation. Therapy finds the answer, by mistake.
This novel couldn’t possibly resolve itself without heartfelt talks with dialed-back humor. Instead of heading to a therapist’s couch, the protagonist uses her stepson’s fieldtrip as an excuse to arrange a rendezvous with Richard in the town in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais that has been a mysterious source of sadness for her, the source of the stories in her Dictionary of Betrayal. Once there she confesses some of her secret to Richard and the rest to us readers. But this secret is a red herring. With her confession comes the realization that what has really seduced her is not Richard, but the notion that she is worth listening to; her husband’s ears have been so filled with the harangues of his ex-wife that he’s not been listening to her. It’s time for she and her husband to have an earnest talk to work out their marriage’s kinks, this time without Dr. Puffin.
Morality Tale earns its happy ending. The price seems so reasonable – a heartfelt and humorous take on a well-worn subject in exchange for letting its characters have a second chance. And Delivery Room? A book full of woe that manages to lift rather than depress us in the end. Therapists receive a deserved battering in both books. Can’t we all just talk honestly with the people in our lives rather than pay strangers to listen to us? Brownrigg believes we’d be a lot better off if we did. I must confess, now that Brownrigg’s started me thinking, my therapist’s moniker for me was probably The Whiner and I wouldn’t mind seeing her eye a bit blue around the edges.
Karen Vanuska‘s creative non-fiction piece “Lost and Found” will be in the December issue of The Battered Suitcase. Her short fiction has appeared in UC Irvine’s Faultline Journal of Art and Literature. She also reviews book for the Half Moon Bay Review. Her literary blog can be found at http://karenvanuska.livejournal.com/.