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How should we then live?,
This review is from: How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life (Hardcover)
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Sheila is a divorced playwright living in Toronto. Although she has a broader social circle centered in the local art scene, she latches onto one particular artist, Margaux, after her divorce. They quickly journey from casual acquaintance and mutual admiration to close friendship, something more fulfilling but entailing more risk as well. Romantically, she becomes the lust interest of the sexy, brooding artist, Israel. The novel uses these relationships as a means for Sheila's self-exploration. Structurally, there's a loose linear narrative, but it's hardly the book's focus. Sheila is obsessed with determining how she should live. How is a young female artist supposed to be? As she reminisces about past boyfriends, finds and loses a husband, makes new friends, and struggles to write (and alternately to avoid writing) a "feminine" (if not feminist) play - while her friends compete to see who can create the ugliest painting - she reveals herself and her search to the reader.
"How Should a Person Be?" is no conventional novel, but a fictionalized (to what extent?) memoir. Sheila is the only character developed in any way. Margaux and Israel (and the other bit players) exist only as a means for Sheila's own self-exploration and expression. So if Margaux appears to be something of an artistic savant, incredibly gifted but socially awkward and aloof, and Israel appears to be sadistic and perverse, focused only on deriving sexual pleasure from Sheila's humiliation, perhaps they aren't to blame. Sheila's inner life is the novel's focus.
Sheila is an engaging, fascinating protagonist. Profoundly self-aware, she exposes her thoughts, feelings, and motivations with complete transparency. Whether she's tapping into Jungian archetypes like the Puer Aeternus and analyzing dreams or pondering her Jewish heritage in the vein of how Moses' struggles might mirror her own, her mind is vibrant and alive. She's completely empathetic because her plight is universal. Her voice is utterly authentic (surely in no small part due to the not so subtle autobiographical nature of the novel).
As intriguing and enjoyable as the novel is, however, the latter half doesn't fulfill the promise of the beginning. Sheila's search doesn't culminate in anything radical if it can be said to culminate at all. Although she arrives at certain conclusions and learns a few lessons, the search is by no means complete. Sheila doesn't seem to have obviously or substantively matured or evolved in any meaningful way over the course of the novel. The author provides a delightfully intimate portrait of her struggle, but it's clearly ongoing. To that end, a sequel in a few years time would provide a very intriguing case study!
Readers who enjoy Scarlett Thomas' novels would likely enjoy this one. The protagonists share more than a passing resemblance and they explore similar themes.