Thanks so much to the LitBlog Coop, Wendi Kaufman, and other readers who have taken an interest in Mutual Life & Casualty. It’s very rewarding and interesting to hear others’ takes on the book, and between what Wendi Kaufman wrote about it on this blog, and the most recent entry by Kassia Krozser, I feel the book is being well read indeed. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.
I was especially impressed by Kassia Krozser’s ability to embrace the entire family dynamic in her remarks. Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting a number of book groups which have read the book, and there has often ensued a lively debate, particularly with regard to the title story, about who is the bad parent in the Khan family, mother or father. Some readers see Naomi Khan as deeply troubling and feel the father gets short shrift. Others identify with Naomi’s dissatisfactions, which have a lot to do with traditional female role playing, as well as with how her husband tends to talk down to her, and these readers tend to overlook her destructive side, the side that drags the girls into her woes to the point where they are fighting her battles for her. My goal in this story, and really throughout the book, was to depict social problems as realistically and complexly as possible, that is to say, as mutually shared by people, as no one person’s fault. Even if Naomi Khan hadn’t engaged her daughters in her marital problems, they may very well have empathized with her anyway because they identify with her through gender and by their closeness with her–she’s the “companion parent.” So, along with the parents’ personalities, the way in which gender roles get played out at this time period is another complication, another part of the “mutual” story.
If I had to say in a nutshell what the book is about, I would describe it as a study on the metaphor “Mutual Life & Casualty.” It’s concerned with different kinds of suffering that stem from human relationships. Mrs. Tucker suffers from her status as a non-mother, despite all her talent as a teacher. Helen Grober suffers from the loss of her marriage, from no longer being a wife, which was so much of her identity. Each of the children who are introduced as Hannah’s classmates–Diana Nicholson, Marty Littleton, Peggy Hardley, and even Jackie Thunder (once he marries Hannah)–have their own vulnerabilities and situations to contend with, their own Mutual Life & Casualty stories. Most poignantly, Hannah and Carolyn Kahn grow up burdened by their troubled family dynamics. And, as mentioned above, each of their parents has suffered too. In this family, nobody escapes being an agent of hurt and getting hurt–which I like to think is one of the book’s strengths because it’s an honest and full portrait of how entangled human dynamics are, for better or for worse.
As far as the novel-in-stories being successful as a novel, I’d like to throw out the possibility that they’re different creatures. Often more a fiction of community than anything else, novel-in-stories often jump, as my book does, from character to character, with an aim of gathering a sense about a community, or about relationships within a community, more than with the aim of telling a story through the traditional novel’s device of unified plot. In Mutual Life & Casualty I found this form a means to explore three kind of relationships simultaneously: the relationship between two sisters, the relationship or dynamic within a family, and the relationship of a single family to the broader community, particularly with regard to women’s changing roles during the 1970s and beyond. I’ve recently written an article the subject of novel-in-stories, citing any number of exciting new works in this form–Kate Walbert’s Our Kind, for example– as well as exciting older works in this form–Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of Pointed First, for example–discussing how innovative the form can be. My growing sense–and of course I could be wrong–is that a novel-in-stories is its own, often quite wonderful, thing.