Category: Archive

Long road back

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Not only a downer, but also a struggle through the redundancy and missteps that inevitably accompany the process of reclaiming one’s life from years of substance abuse. But, in the end, if the book is truly successful, it drags its readers through this process, while breaching the divide we imagine between ourselves and the kind of people who would buy their 16-year-old daughter a handle of vodka for Christmas.
Roddy Doyle’s latest novel, “Paula Spencer” is both tedious and enlightening in just those ways. The narrative revisits the main character of Doyle’s 1996 novel, “The Woman Who Walked into Doors,” which chronicles Paula’s abusive marriage and descent into alcoholism. Now, 10 years later, Paula has been sober for four months, and is far from healed. Her sobriety is still very tenuous, a decision she must make every day. Her four children, whom she neglected, have not forgiven her and expect a relapse at any moment. Paula’s efforts to reconnect with them are genuine and heartbreaking, but often thwarted by her own limitations as a victim. For example, Paula wants to help her daughter, Leanne, who has her own problems with alcohol. One day, she’s throwing away Leanne’s liquor, the next she’s scrounging in Leanne’s room to lick empty beer cans. In a household fraught with this kind of emotional and physical turmoil, communication is difficult. All of the resentment and shifting alliances of a broken family nearly paralyze Paula as she tries to make amends. Love, in this environment, can only be expressed by the smallest gestures: making someone tea, or ignoring a hurtful remark.
Paula also longs to engage with the larger world that she abandoned for so long. Buying popular CDs, watching reality television, using a cell phone, and learning how to use the Internet are all ways in which she tries to reintegrate into society. Her interest in these technologies and Hollywood fictions masquerading as reality contrast nicely with her everyday battle for love and survival. Interestingly, it is the anonymity of these modern devices that finally allow her to make small advances in her relationships. Sometimes unsure of how to greet family members when they walk in, Paula is eventually able to text her sister in the middle of the night to say she’s thinking about her.
As empathetic, realistic and moving as this story is, we must return to the original point-that of subject matter. Told in the limited third person perspective, “Paula Spencer” follows a woman who is living life one day at a time. We, as readers, have to experience the excruciating everyday minutiae of Paula’s life: the internal monologues on buying a coat or standing in line, the stilted conversations. To wit:

–The soup’s not ready yet, she says.
–What? Yeah.
It’s years since she made soup. He probably doesn’t remember.
–I just thought I’d make some.
He’s cutting some cheese.
–D’you want a hand?
–I’m fine.
–I got some fresh bread.
–I know; yeah. I have it.
–Just in case you’re using the old stuff.
Lovely smell now, she says.
–What? He says. -Yeah.

This kind of stuff goes on for pages. For the most part, these interactions serve to trap us in Paula’s perspective, to feel her dread and awkwardness. It’s the point. And it works. But realistic as this may be for Paula and as important as that is for the story, does this mean that we have to read pages and pages of these say-nothing conversations?
I think that as a story, “Paula Spencer,” is impeccably written and imagined. But as a novel, I believe that the microscopic focus of monosyllabic utterances and tea-making is the sort of drama that is best played out in a short story, where the everyday is distilled into a few instances that speak for a lifetime. A collection of these stories, all following the course of Paula’s recovery, would allow the small, beautiful moments of this novel to shine even more and allow us readers a little more respite as we trudge, hand in hand, with Paula on the long road to normalcy.

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese