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This review is from: Yvette in America: A Sequential Novel (Series in Contemporary Fiction) (Hardcover)
"What must a refugee not remember in order to survive?" asks the narrator of John Goulet's sequential novel, Yvette in America. "Simple: the past." Yvette Plevin--refugee from the Nazis, captive of her memories and loves--consistently fashions of herself the appropriate character that will allow her to survive from one moment to the next, story by life-story. She is an emotional and geographical transient by necessity, the narrative suggests, because, along with wit, tenacity, pride, and humor, flight and adaptation are skills necessary to ensure a refugee's emotional and physical survival. Finally, however, Yvette is the tragic hero of her own "sweet stories of love and love's implications."
The six "sweet" and surprising stories that comprise Goulet's book are told through a third-person, limited point of view that reads like the score of a duet. One of the two voices of this narrative duet is purely Plevin's. Her psychological patterns impress themselves on Goulet's syntax--"Plenty of tears, you bet"--her language is fresh and lyrically exuberant, as opposed to George's, Yvette's son and co-narrator, whose voice is a "lugubrious" and "morose" counterpoint weighted with the patient searching for explanations that make sense of his mother's motives. In the music of Goulet's sentences, George is the baseline who sustains Yvette's brilliant, improvisational riffs. The rare moments when these two authorial voices separate are evocative of where the stories are ultimately located, as when George is "thinking himself very clever but missing the point, as he always does, which is that the most important thing in the world is one's independence. 'Write that down,' she [Yvette] says, when he finally sits, takes out pen and pad, preparing to requiz her on the past. And she repeats for history's benefit: 'The most important thing in the world is one's independence.'"
George may be pardoned for missing his mother's point. Necessity dictates that George be an onlooker, an observer of his mother, who necessity dictates is perpetually forced into action. In "House of Happiness," for example, while Yvette's mostly American contemporaries are engaged in creating the ambiance of a bohemian lifestyle in Boston, she is busily fashioning an Americanized version of herself that will allow her and her son to survive in the country of their asylum; in "Dear Father Flanagan," Yvette, during a "rainy Easter week" in Lexington Kentucky, shoulders the burden of savior who would rescue a child from his abusive father ("'Whose idea was it to call Good Friday good?' Yvette wonders. 'Certainly not Christ's'").
"L'Academie Francaise" finds Yvette in Grand Junction, Colorado, momentarily taking on the role of small-time celebrity that is bestowed upon her by the local French club; in "The Snake in the Snow," set in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Yvette finds herself inhabiting the role of the "other woman," as she perceives herself through the eyes of her deceased ex-husband and his surviving wife; in the second to last story, "Trust," the reader journeys to the MGM studios in L.A. and finds Yvette's impulse toward self-invention transferred to her son, who Yvette is convinced will be "a handsome Mickey Rooney, not a clown. A prince!"; the final story, "Yvette in Love," which is set in Milwaukee, distorts the role of actor and role, as Yvette, now in her eighties and suffering the onset of dementia, is no longer able to separate what is real from what is fiction.
The first of eight short narrative "frames" that serve as connective tissue between the stories begins where the last story ends. The book's prologue establishes a cohesive narrative present--the last several days of Yvette on her hospital death-bed, her son by her side--so that, like the two narrative voices, the reader is aware of two coexisting chronologies. For all its technical mastery, the thematic result is breathtakingly human: our present is a refugee of a past we can never go back to.
John Goulet's Yvette in America is wise, subtle, innovative, by turns funny and profoundly sorrowful. It is, in short, such an astonishingly good book that the reader comes away from it thankful that we have Goulet in America contributing to American letters. It is also a remarkable premiere for the University Press of Colorado's Series in Contemporary Fiction.
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