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“Detaching the Threads”: May Sarton, A Reckoning

By (October 28, 2017) No Comment

Yes, Laura thought, it’s like a web. Whatever the secret, the real connections, we are inextricably woven into a huge web together, and detaching the threads, one by one, is hideously painful. As long as one still feels the tug, one is not ready to die.

I don’t think May Sarton is a very good novelist, and yet I seem to keep coming back to her fiction. Like the other novels of hers that I’ve read, A Reckoning has moments of tender, meditative loveliness–and yet (also like the others) it is curiously artless, even occasionally clunky. For all its faults, I was engrossed and moved by it, perhaps because (again, also like the others) it is palpably sincere, and also questing. I don’t know if this will make sense, but there’s something very human about Sarton’s novels: they seem very much the product of a person thinking things through. If her results were more aesthetically impressive or perfected, they might be better novels in some sense, but I’m not sure that would be an improvement–at least, not for me.

A Reckoning is the story of Laura Spelman’s death. When the novel begins, she has just been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. She is only 60, but she doesn’t really feel robbed of time: in fact, she thinks she has lived a full and complete life. What she wants now is to live through her dying on her own terms, which at first she thinks means without involving anyone else; soon, however, it becomes clear that this plan was misguided, partly because she quickly becomes too weak to care for herself, but also because she realizes that her death is not exclusively her own event. It inevitably affects everyone else in her life, from her children and grandchildren to the young woman whose novel she has been working on for her job as an editor at Houghton Mifflin.

“It is then to be a reckoning,” Laura thinks to herself in Chapter 1: with the time she has left, she wants to focus on what really matters, which means thinking about her life and the people in it and trying to figure out “the real connections.” As Laura sees it, it’s not a time for making amends or healing wounds: she is not sorry to leave her mother behind, for example. In her reveries, she ends up focusing particularly on women–those she has known and loved, especially her childhood friend Ella, but also women in the abstract, as she muses on the difficulties they face and the new opportunities she now sees for “sisterhood” (the novel was first published in 1978). Thinking about her sister Jo, who loved another woman but decided it was “more than I could handle ever again … and in my world too dangerous,” Lauren observes,

‘What I begin to see–Jo’s visit somehow clinched it for me–is that women have been in a queer way locked away from one another in a man’s world. The perspective has been from there. Jo thinks of herself as a man. All that is changing and perhaps women will be able to give one another a great deal more than before.’

She doesn’t mean sexually, though a recurring element of the novel is that times are changing for gay people in particular (the novel she’s editing is a “coming out” novel, and Laura continues working with its anxious author after leaving her job because she thinks it’s an important book). More generally, she thinks women no longer see each other primarily as rivals, and that this frees them up to be friends in an empowering and comforting way. “I think this whole journey towards death has been in a way joining myself up with women, with all women,” she tells Ella, whose visit finally releases Laura from the tug of life.

There are lots of small interesting things along the way to Laura’s death, many of them spinning off from this attention to women’s relationships, but also comments about families and marriage and, of course, about dying. Sarton shows Laura gradually receding from the world around her. It’s not portrayed sentimentally or euphemistically, but for all the details about nausea and coughing up blood, it’s also not a catalog of medical horrors. Laura is very aware of her illness as a physical encroachment on her body, but Sarton gives us the story of her death primarily as a mental and emotional journey. “It seems as though a person dies when he is ready,” the caregiver Laura hires explains to her when Laura asks her to share what she knows about death. A Reckoning follows Laura as she readies herself. More touching and, I thought, more profound than the goodbyes to other people are the moments in the novel that are just about Laura taking a few last opportunities simply to be herself (an ongoing theme of Sarton’s writing), listening to the music she loves, drinking in the beauty of spring flowers:

It had smitten her like love, with a poignant ache in all her being. She turned her head so she could see the light shining through the daffodils and watched it turning the petal’s flesh to a transparency, more alive than stained glass. Brahms and daffodils–life–life.

We know from Sarton’s memoirs and diaries that this is where she too found life, and no doubt that is why she writes about it so well on Laura’s behalf as she lies facing death and listening to Mozart:

Laura felt joy rising, filling her to the brim, yet not overflowing. What had become almost uncontrollable grief at the door seemed now a blessed state. It was not a state she could easily define in words. But it felt like some extraordinary dance, the dance of life itself, of atoms and molecules, that had never been as beautiful or as poignant as at this instant, a dance that must be danced more carefully and with greater fervour to the very end.

A side note: I recently took the widely recommended step of securing a “domain of my own” and I am gradually consolidating my online content there, including Novel Readings. I will be posting at both locations for a while, but as part of this process I am disabling contents at this location. If you’d like to leave a comment on this post, you can do so here.