Valerie's thoughts on chronology below lead easily toward the elements of the novel that so captured my own attention -- the extraordinary way in which history is interwoven into the book. It's rare that a novel captures for me the feeling of what it is to be alive at particular moments in the past, because any writer who aspires to portray such a thing gets caught between various bad options: should the characters encounter the most famous people of their time (even though most of us never have much interaction with the names that will last in the history books) because that is a simple way to signal that this is History? should the characters point out major events? how much emphasis should be put on details different from our own lives now? Et cetera.
These are the questions of a historical novel, which is generally seen as something different from a novel that just happens to be set in the past -- the emphasis is different. A setting in the past is not necessarily about the past. And yet, for me at least, Seven Loves is not quite either, or almost both, and better because of it. The book accomplishes this feat by indirection, and the effect is a result of both the non-chronological form and the weight and power given to memory in the narrative.
First, we have the personal events of May's life, the stuff of everyday existence, the family stories, the individual experiences. As early as the second chapter, the patterns created through May's remembering create a vivid portrayal of her life as imagined by the writer. The novel accumulates these details as it progresses -- things hinted at or passed by earlier get filled out, explained, explored, and whatever details the reader has kept in her or his mind then gain new resonance. This is a useful technique for building a sense of "roundness" for a character, but it is more than that -- it deepens the entire world of the narrative, creating perspective and richness.
What most impresses me about Seven Loves, though, is that it doesn't stop there. Many a sensitive, well-written novel creates perspective and offers deeply imagined characters, but what sets Seven Loves apart for me is the way it subtly situates those deeply imagined characters within a clear, but never obtrusive, past. From the Depression and World War II to Vietnam and all its aftermaths, nearly a century of American life gets glimpsed in the book. Always, though, the glimpses are just that, and the relationships of friends and family, colleagues and students, supervisors and enforcers, loves and losses are more immediate, though not all-consuming. The personal and political intersect, encountering each other, affecting each other, and yet they are different worlds, different effects. The personal becomes the sharper instrument of memory, and the form of the novel reflects this, but the world beyond the home and family, beyond love and loss, remains a sharp shadow across it all.
A more linear narrative approach, perhaps one that didn't foreground the play of memory so much, would not have been able to achieve such a fine balance of experience and events, because it would have robbed us of the many glimpses that create -- through repetition, accumulation, and slow revelation -- the substance that is then given another layer of meaning through the mention of moments we think of as history. The novel becomes much more than a simple portayal of one woman's life. It becomes the portrayal of a life lived in time, a life with a past built from the material we all build our pasts from: what we remember. It thus manages to be intimate without being hermetic, focused without being solipsistic, personal without forgetting how much lies beyond each one of us.