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There Will Never Be Another You A Novel Carolyn See Random House: 242 pp., $24.95
By Veronique de Turenne, Veronique de Turenne is book critic for NPR’s “Day to Day.”
THERE’S a scene in Carolyn See’s new novel, “There Will Never Be Another You,” that could be a blueprint for this sly and stealthy rabbit-punch of a book. The 64-year-old narrator, Edith, a recent widow, is on a date at Culver City’s Jazz Bakery. Four musicians — three old guys in shiny suits and a young drummer dressed in sweats — stroll onstage and play “There Will Never Be Another You.” The audience sighs in recognition.
“They broke off to do solos,” See describes the moment, “the tenor and then the alto, the tenor again, then the alto, then looked over to the piano, where the guy did something amazing and virtuosic, if that was the word, and I took the time to look around.”
What Edith sees is the whole crowd grooving, relaxing into the riffs and refrains of musicians who know exactly what they’re doing. It’s a reflection of the sure-handed way See sends five separate stories out into the world here, leaving them alone to breathe a bit and gather form before reeling them in, blended into an unexpected unity.
The unexpected is what readers have come to expect from See. Her first book, “The Rest Is Done With Mirrors,” came out in 1970, shortly after she began a teaching career at UCLA. Set in the realm of graduate school and filled with skulduggery on a personal and geopolitical scale, the novel took an unflinching look at university life that shocked some readers. In 1973, See followed it up with the first of three nonfiction works, “Blue Money,” about the world of pornography. In love with Southern California, fascinated by the undercurrent of fear and panic that often infuses ordinary life, she forged a unique literary voice. Drawn to disturbing themes — including nuclear devastation, federal conspiracies and global pandemics — See’s tart and funny take on current events brings even her darkest plots into the realm of faith and love and family.
With “There Will Never Be Another You,” See continues her exploration of these issues. Set in the fretful near-future of a gathering apocalypse, the novel unfolds through the prism of three generations of a struggling Los Angeles family. Edith, twice widowed, volunteers at the UCLA Medical Center, where her dermatologist son, Phil, has been secretly dragooned onto an ominous bioterrorism response team. Phil’s own family, meanwhile, is falling apart. His wife is miserable, his teenage daughter’s a snotty high-achiever, and his 8-year-old son is a mess. Further complicating the narrative are a large Chinese American family on death watch in the ICU and an ailing scholar with his twentysomething daughter who hover, seemingly unconnected, on the periphery of the tale.
As the world around these people spins out of control, so too do their own lives, with illness, death, divorce and heartbreak served up in rapid succession. Personal tragedy reflects global uncertainty, or vice versa — it depends on where in the novel you find yourself. See lets us know we can’t control either one, then soothes us with the optimism that is her ultimate gift. When the scholar’s daughter, Andrea, and Danny, a boy from the Chinese family, fall in love, it’s a sweet relief. Here, in the bushes and bracken where they hide to make love, angst and anxiety suddenly fall away. This is young romance, after all. It gives a flash of logic to the querulous world See has pressed upon us, and we’re relieved, even grateful.
“There Will Never Be Another You” is very much a character-driven novel. Point of view shifts from chapter to chapter; as it does, the tone of the book also changes, until you can’t help but hear echoes of See’s previous work.
Edith, for instance, feels a bit like Grace, the older narrator of “Rhine Maidens,” See’s 1981 novel about the parallels between a mother’s and a daughter’s ruined marriages. Edith and Grace are both wan and wary, all sharp elbows and sharper tongues. Edith, however, feels more real, perhaps because she and See are in the same age range now. “There Will Never Be Another You” opens with the character liberating her apartment of the detritus of her husband’s sick room, shoving adult diapers and antiseptics and creams and lotions and catheters into trash bags and jamming them into the incinerator. There’s rage and despair and intimate knowledge in the details. And grim humor. “It took a lot of junk to see someone off to the next world,” Edith says.
It’s a no-brainer to equate the paranoid landscape of “There Will Never Be Another You” with “Golden Days,” See’s iconic work about surviving a nuclear blast in the protective embrace of Topanga Canyon. But all her novels, even “The Handyman,” a soothing and addictive fairy tale for frazzled women, are hung around a dark core. She’ll pull hope and humor from a suitcase bomb or a failing marriage, then rub your nose in the sorrow that, if you’re paying attention, comes with falling in love.
For Andrea and Danny, it starts in a college poetry class. She’s sitting behind him, pondering his skin. “It was the color of twilight,” See writes. “She’d look at that neck sometimes, caught between the impossible beauty of the poetry and the familiar fear of being unexpectedly called on, the imperatives to be smart but not aggressive, pretty but not flirty, there but not there. Through the quarter, staring at his neck, listening to his low, strained, concentrating voice, she got the idea that she and he (and yes, sure, the professor) were the only ones here in love with that language, mad about finding the meaning in those locked-up words.”
That’s how we feel in this book, like prospectors groping along with the slimmest of headlights to guide us. See’s stories form from within, from details and incremental actions. Characters nibble their way to the surface of the bigger tale. She doesn’t signal where she’s going; some of the time, when chapters seem like non sequiturs and you’re hard-pressed to care about a character, you wonder if she’s going anywhere at all. But she is, and so are you. You’re lured along by language, by emotion, by imagery so simple you zoom past a sentence, stop and read it again as you realize how much See has done with just a few words.
When Edith’s son, Phil, goes apartment hunting, the scene brings to mind all the leaden dread of looking for a place to live. “He recognized the strict, blood-draining gleam of Navajo White,” See notes, “a thick coat of the stuff on every wall.”
And yet, Phil too is not impervious to the wonder See finds in the most unlikely of settings, to his own unexpected moments of joy. “He also checked out the sound of his son’s voice,” she tells us, “a strange, light, and sandy-seeming tenor, dizzy with — could it be happiness?”
It could. At least that’s where “There Will Never Be Another You” appears to lead. See’s had her say about the crazy, nutty world that she predicted in “Golden Days” and that arrived, fully formed, at our doorsteps in September 2001, and she seems satisfied. By the time the meandering narratives meet up and get resolved, by the time Edith finds peace and Phil finds answers and Danny and Andrea deal with the consequences of their love, See has managed to convince us it’s all going to be OK.
Life During Wartime
by Marion Winik
May 7, 2006
In the immediate wake of 9/11, there was a general feeling, even among those who lost no intimates, that life would never be the same – that the familiar rhythms and order of daily existence could not return. My husband did not agree. We would still, he said, have to put on our pants in the morning, one leg a time.
Well, of course, he was right. Whether we wanted to or not, we went on: getting dressed, falling in love, fighting with our families, struggling with bad habits, growing old.
Acclaimed author and critic Carolyn See’s new novel, “There Will Never Be Another You,” is designed to examine just how long this state of affairs can hold up. Set in Southern California in the near future, in a political and environmental climate of increasing paranoia and danger, the story focuses on the personal difficulties of a small circle of characters. So while the narrator, newly widowed, is coping with the fury she feels at her bereavement, her physician son is watching out the window of his office at UCLA Medical Center as the corpses of feral cats are removed by Animal Control. It’s Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking” meets Michael Crichton’s “Prey.”
While any bioterrorism novel would have to offer a domestic drama component – “Prey” has a stay-at-home dad with a cheating nanotechnologist wife – See’s characters are much more than crash dummies set up to absorb the effects of the nightmare. Edith, who opens the book the morning after her husband’s death with a bitter, bravura monologue, describes herself this way, in a clear homage to Didion: “I am a well-groomed woman of 64 and a half years. I weigh 110 pounds. I am a particular kind of Los Angeles lady, the kind with a light tan and blouses of beige silk, very good shoes, a bony face and a bad disposition.” About half the novel is written in Edith’s voice, a cranky, profane, intelligent voice awakening from “that half-conscious trance the living get into when they’re with someone who’s dying.”
Interwoven with this thoroughly successful element of the book (including harrowing and hilarious excursions into the senior-citizen dating scene) are third-person sections that follow other characters, primarily her son, a wine-slugging dermatologist. Phil’s mistress dumps him, his wife begins an affair, his kids brutally snub him and the U.S. military drafts him into an elite force of doctors who are training to save L.A. from bioterrorism. His indoctrination begins with a bizarre scene where the docs are herded into a room and handed hazmat suits that require wrapping their whole bodies, genitalia first, in moleskin. “Get it through your head, soldier,”snaps the colonel when they flounder and protest. “You flunked the test. You weren’t even halfway there. You’re dead.”
We’re not soldiers, Phil tries to explain, but that doesn’t get them off the hook. It’s not long before two cute blond teenage girls come into the hospital feeling poorly. Their fingertips burst, their extremities are amputated, and they die.
Phil has had it. He grabs his 11-year-old son, who’s going down the tubes so fast that even the most expensive last-chance middle school in town won’t take him, from the clutches of Mom and her paramour and takes radical action. At this point the story begins to move very quickly, with many years elapsing between the sections, quickly sketching in the future of each character: Edith, Phil and his family, and the supporting cast, including a sexy pair of young lovers, Anglo Andrea and Asian Danny.
It’s a brisk and surprisingly happy ending for everyone, considering the ominous portents earlier in the book. But at second glance, See is simply giving a clear answer to the novel’s fundamental question. Edith says it straight out on the last page: “Sure, there is terror and war somewhere, and sure, we will all die. But we’re not dead yet!”
Marion Winik is the author, most recently, of “Above Us Only Sky,” a book of essays.
Copyright (c) 2006, Newsday, Inc.
Early Praise for Carolyn See
“Carolyn See has written a novel alive with wit and love and energy—a book about things falling apart that turns out to be a day at the beach, ripeness is all, pure joy.”— Joan Didion
“I can’t think of any novelist remotely like Carolyn See. Who else scares you to death while providing motherly consolation? Who else takes such tremendous risks so tranquilly? Who else writes with such generous courage? There will never be another her!”—Ursula K. Le Guin
“There Will Never Be Another You is a splendid novel — funny and mournful, harrowing and full of hope. Carolyn See distills our expanding fears into spirits of optimism and grace, and she entertains like the master she is. I read this book at warp speed.”— T. Jefferson Parker
“Once again, Carolyn See has packed the complexities of contemporary life into tense and fast-moving action and dialogue. There Will Never Be Another You explodes on the page as story and social history. —Kevin Starr, author of California: A History and Professor of History, University of Southern California
This novel starts out as a curiosity, takes a turn into something perplexing, but ends as an artistic and soulful master achievement. The well-respected author sets her tale in the near future, and “the war” in which the U.S. has been involved for several years continues to be waged (which war is no mystery despite being unidentified). Terrorism against the U.S. eventually assumes the form of environmental disaster. But, unusual for a “forecast” novel, this one eschews any what-will-technology-come-to-look-like gimmickry; emphatically, this is no spy thriller. Phil Fuchs is a physician affiliated with UCLA hospital; his wife is unhappy, and his kids are a mess. He seems to be just surfing through his life. His mother is recently widowed and unsettled. But Phil has to snap-to when, first, he is called on to participate in a top-secret emergency-response unit and then must face the breakup of his marriage. A secondary storyline seems unattached to the main one at first, but soon See’s tight control over all the plot elements becomes obvious. The novel’s deep resonance lies in her imaginative yet meaningful juxtaposition of global issues and domestic ones: crises in the former can connect with, influence, and even determine the outcome of crises in the latter. ––Brad Hooper.
February 15, 2006