Within the bounds of realism, a more fantastic or original novel than Peter Rushforth's Pinkerton's Sister
would be hard to imagine. Alice Pinkerton is a New York spinster of 1905, raised to join the middle-class matrons in her respectable, status-conscious neighborhood, but cursed from childhood with the gift of seeing through humbug. Her ecstatic immersion in English literature has only made things worse, so that by the age of 30, she is too clever, quirky, and dark-mustached to be anything but an object of scorn in the eyes of her peers. When not submitting to her psychologist's latest enthusiasms (she suffers his passing fancies for phrenology, massage, hot water immersion, cold water immersion, dream interpretation, cloud reading, and hypnosis) Alice occupies herself with word games and arabesques, indulging in lengthy fantasies of gender-reversal, spontaneous ballet, and other embarrassments for the doctors, clergymen, merchants, and matrons who patrol the social boundaries that keep bluestockings like Alice locked away as "madwomen," rather than writing and selling books.
There's very little in the way of plot in Rushforth's second novel (the first, Kindergarten, appeared to acclaim about 25 years ago), except for the piecemeal recollection of her childhood friendship with a black servant named Annie. Not much older than Alice herself, Annie was a worthy playmate who tried to protect Alice from her father and the never-spelled-out abuses he and a friend inflicted on them both. Alice's hatred of her father burns even hotter than her love of Annie, and she remains convinced he was responsible for Annie¹s disappearance and probable death. These passions--and a handful of other childhood memories--hold together an otherwise loose, disorderly sequence of satirical jokes and verbal flourishes and sometimes overly long frolics. Don't expect the rustling skirts and repressed emotions of a Merchant Ivory film. Pinkerton's Sister reads like an absinthe-fueled, all-night collaboration between Edith Wharton, Angela Carter, and Monty Python. --Regina Marler
From Publishers Weekly
Rushforth's pyrotechnic second novel (appearing 25 years after the publication of his acclaimed debut, Kindergarten
) seeks to capture, in one day, the play of forces—literary, musical, medical and sexual—that made Edwardian New York society. At the center is Alice Pinkerton, nearly 35-year-old "spinster," the "madwoman in the attic" of Longfellow Park. Actually, she is not confined to an attic: she writes, goes to church and takes care of her mother. But these details are almost hidden in the deluge of Alice's inner life flowing over these pages, with a richness comparable to Leopold Bloom's in Ulysses
. Alice, it appears, suffers from hypertrophy of childhood memories and a consequent emotional vacancy of adult experience. Does it stem from her discovery, at 20, of the body of her father, who committed suicide in his study? Perhaps the real key to Alice's condition goes back to twinned mysteries: the disappearance of her beloved childhood maid, and the source of her hatred for her father. Alice's fantasies and musings are stuffed with references to Shakespeare, 19th-century novels and poetry (particularly Stevenson's The Children's Hour
, which exerts a surprisingly sinister influence in her life), opera and popular music; these are both buffers against reality and a means of mythologizing her neighbors. The flaw is that Rushforth has created no character in the book to counterbalance Alice; you sometimes feel that, in this mansion of a novel, you are locked in a small crowded closet.
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