Susan Minot, Evening

Seeing the previews for the new movie of Evening reminded me that the novel had been sitting on my shelf “ripening” for a few years, so I decided it was time to read it. While I was reading it, I kept thinking that it was a very odd choice for a movie adaptation, dedicated as it is to rendering the dying protagonist’s consciousness, the meandering and then occasionally piercing or flashing experience of her memories and feelings. The prose and the story combine to make reading the novel an intense and often moving process, and I thought (I guess I still think) that the care Minot has lavished on telling details and on exploring the ultimately lonely experience of subjectivity will inevitably be lost when the story is translated or reduced to its action (for some reason I’m sure that the car accident will feature prominently in the film version). Since finishing it last night, though, I’ve engaged in some co-duction with myself and become increasingly dissatisfied with the novel. It seems to me that Minot’s care has already been lavished on an undeserving subject, in this respect at least: the relationship that Ann describes as “the highest point” in her life is, basically, an unlikely and cliched interlude of sexual ecstasy with another woman’s fiance–and the emotional force of the novel relies on our accepting that this brief affair with a near stranger matters more than anything else that has happened in her life since then. Here’s an excerpt from one of the culminating scenes:

She swam through the water and let cold reason take over and the heart which had asked for too much left her behind and when she emerged from the water on the rocky beach she had let go of it and there was a new version in her, a sort of second heart. She went in with one heart and came out with a second heart inside. (246)

Is the idea really that as a result of this youthful romance, which he calls off in favour of his pregnant girlfriend, she has turned away from feeling (the wisdom of the heart?) and allowed herself, oh so wrongly, to be governed by “cold reason” (the wisdom of the head?)? Even putting aside this improbably absolute separation of head and heart, the whole scenario turns out, despite the beautiful prose, to be no better than a Hollywood cliche or a fairy tale fantasy about true love–meaning that, after all, it’s not such a bad subject for a sentimental ‘weeper’ movie. All of the moral complications, the difficult weighing and balancing of duties and principles against feelings and impulses, seem to be set aside, while being swept away by passion becomes the highest ideal, the life most worth living (it’s hard for me not to think about the way George Eliot handles a similar situation, in a wholly different philosophical and literary style, in The Mill on the Floss). Maybe there’s a layer of thought in the novel in which Ann’s memories of her love for Harris Arden are ironized or critiqued; it’s true that we do learn that Harris never felt as strongly, for example. But at this point my judgment is that the novel is beautiful and evocative and yet, sadly, insubstantial.

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