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Miss Jane: A Novel Paperback – July 11, 2017
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“Watson infuses the story with curiosity, uncertainty, and, not unlike Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, a certain wildness…The book plays on the tongue like an oyster―first salty, then cold―before slipping away to be consumed and digested.”
- Aditi Sriram, Washington Post
“A story worth telling even as it breaks your heart.”
- Amy Brady, Chicago Review of Books
“[Jane’s] fearless acceptance of what sets her apart is profoundly human, and her lifelong struggle to understand her place in the world reflects the intricate workings of our own mysterious hearts.”
- Gina Webb, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Watson has done something extraordinary here. This is not grit-lit...But it is Southern literature, nevertheless: fresh, new, without cliché. Watson may be our best.”
- Don Noble, Alabama Writers' Forum
“An exceptionally well written book. The prose was beautiful and the novel had a gentleness about it...I loved this book for its simplicity and would highly recommend it.”
- Meredith Kelly, Luxury Reading
“As Watson arcs through the story of Jane’s life in sensitive, beautifully precise prose, we are both absorbed and humbled.”
- Library Journal (starred)
“A well-written portrait of a person whose rich inner life outstrips the limits of her body.”
- Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Brad Watson teaches creative writing at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. His first collection, Last Days of the Dog-Men, won the Sue Kauffman Award for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts & Letters; his first novel, The Heaven of Mercury, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and his Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
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Comparisons between the two novels should stop there. Miss Jane is not in any way derivative, and in fact Watson has drawn on the true life experiences of his own Great Aunt who suffered from the condition described in the novel. The result is a heartfelt exploration of loneliness, acceptance and happiness expertly guided by a taut prose that seems to own the language and experience of those times.
I don’t plan to reveal any more about Jane’s problem except to say that is a congenital anomaly of the genitals. I felt that Watson purposefully held back on the details, adding them bit by bit as the novel progressed, and this slow reveal of the diagnosis and its prognosis gave me some sense of the uncertainty, melancholy and mystery that Jane (and her real life model) must have felt in earlier times.
One of the great strengths of this novel is its look at early 20th century medicine. Watson accomplishes this through the character of a sage, country doctor who has spurned the big hospitals and East Coast opportunities of his medical school colleagues and has chosen to remain in the south, serving mostly the poor. In one of the novel’s opening and most interesting scenes, this Dr. Thompson comes home tired and a bit intoxicated to find his porch full of several of the county’s afflicted. This scene alone would make the book worth reading, especially the man gone blind after being struck in the head with a shovel by his wife (who accompanies him and assures the doctor her husband deserved it). These scenes are powerful and more than once they inspired comparisons to Steinbeck and to some extent Stegner.
While the cast of characters here is not large, all are strong and interesting and serve to make Watson’s points well. In addition to the bright and engaging Jane and the magnanimous Dr. Thompson, there is Jane’s father, the self made man become world weary who makes a legendary apple brandy, and her mother a melancholy and distant woman who never got over the death of her third child. Grace, her sister is a rebel looking for the quickest way off of the farm even at the young age of 9. When the depression hits, it exaggerates the flaws in each of these characters and Jane becomes in many ways the most stable part of their family.
In another great scene, Jane’s mother exasperated and saddened seeks out a local fortune teller. She asks the seer, “will my daughter ever be normal?” Her answer, “no, but she’ll be happy. Happier than you.” That prediction is a tidy summation of the novel itself. We spend so much time hurting for Jane, putting ourselves in her shoes or even worse, putting our children in her shoes and we want to fix her. And don’t get me wrong, Jane wants a solution to her problem too. But instead of yielding to the melancholy her family is certain she should feel and the reader feels she should feel, she gets on with the business of living.
Miss Jane is a contemplative novel that takes long and deliberate looks at the human condition including loneliness and sadness, love, self worth, adversity and happiness among a great many others. At one point, Jane’s father, late in his life and with the angst of a parent who knows he did not deliver his best for his child apologizes to Jane for his role in her condition. She calms him saying, “I’m fine. I know who I am, and I know how to live with that.” We’d all do well to arrive in that same place and Miss Jane is a beautifully written vehicle that leads the reader down the path Jane takes to get there.
Note: Free ARC received from the publisher via NetGalley
Sidenote: If you are into cover art, this is among the year’s best. It actually becomes more meaningful as the novel progresses, something I thought was unique.
The year is 1915 rural Mississippi, born to Ida and Sylvester Chisholm, Jane is the last of 5 children. On a regular day, it is business as usual for country doctor Edward Thompson, who delivers Jane and discovers that she has a severe deformity and it is an inoperable condition. Though her condition is complex and challenging, Jane grows up a quite happy child. Dr. Thompson never see Jane as just a medical oddity, there was a connection right from the start, as thought he knew she needed him and he becomes her champion and guide. Because he knew well the poor, ignorant country folk who were his patients and neighbors, he wants Jane to try to understand the attitudes that she would face every day, for the rest of her life. So, he set out to help her do just that. Knowing exactly what her problem was and the lack of science's inability to presently fix it, he was always honest and gentle with Jane, explaining that she was a normal child in every way but one, and through no fault of her own or anyone else, her insides just didn't develop all the way. He told her how to clean herself and even discussed in a way that Jane could understand the genitalia of the creatures with whom she share the farm. Jane loved nature and was a normal, curious child and possibly more than curious about the mating habits of her small world on the farm.
Jane, like all her observations is a force of nature herself, she loves the farm she was born on, the woods, animals and nature. We see Jane's irrepressible vitality and generous spirit give her the strength to live her life as she pleases in spite of the limitations that others, and her own body, would place on her. She wastes no time on self pity and even forces those who want to look away to see her. She is an intelligent, courageous, and lovely person, determined to bloom where she is planted.
Jane's relationship with her family is significant in her trajectory through life, as nature and nurture collide. Her father, though a deeply flawed, functioning alcoholic, plagued by his own disappointments and demons, loves her and is very gentle and protective. Her mother is a harried and hopeless, remote and bitter melancholic who seems to want to force her maladies on Jane and her sister. But rebellious, big sis Grace, is having none of it, she gets off the farm at the first opportunity, though she fiercely loves Jane, she also wants to live her own life.
Jane does get to experience love but never stops longing for romantic love, and finds him in the beautiful farm boy who sees Jane in spite of her difference. A few chaste kisses and a never consummated love however leaves a lot to be desired.
This is a powerful gem of a book, and Jane's story is told with such sensitivity and grace as could only be told in such a way by one who loved.
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Reading it for book club, should be a good discussion!Read more