The Way We Lived Then

Sigrid Nunez
Sigrid Nunez; drawing by David Levine

Sigrid Nunez is a memoirist of considerable gifts, which is worth remarking only because she is the author of novels rather than of memoirs. Her first book, A Feather on the Breath of God(1995), is the fascinating account of a young woman’s childhood and adolescence in the housing projects of Staten Island, poignantly detailing her immigrant parents’ challenges and isolation, and her own desires to dance and to become a writer. For Rouenna (2001) chronicles her rediscovery of Rouenna Zycinski, whom she knew slightly as a wild child during those Staten Island years. The two become lively acquaintances, if not wholly friends, until the woman’s sudden suicide, which prompts in the narrator a vivid imagining of Rouenna’s time as a combat nurse in Vietnam. Using an intercutting of meditation and careful reconstruction, she has written an impassioned and complicated recollection transformed, by the author’s skill, into a work of fiction rather than of history. Both novels are marked with the authority of lived experience, and readily acknowledge that authority. Their scope is not large, but their effect is profound.

Nunez tends to write in the first person, which allows time for recurring digressions in her narrative. In For Rouenna, for example, she sets the dramatic story of Rouenna Zycinski against the narrator’s own mundane employment as a teacher of creative writing at Smith College, and offers us apparently tangential details about her apartment and her isolated existence in Northampton, Massachusetts. In A Feather on the Breath of God, she writes about her adolescent passion for ballet, and her later dismay at the tortures it inflicts upon women’s bodies, without feeling obliged directly to link these ruminations to the central subjects of her immigrant parents’ alienated lives, and her adult passion for a louche Russian student in her EFL class. She makes much of life’s small details, while glossing subtly over great events. Nunez’s latest book, The Last of Her Kind, departs from its predecessors in the scale of its ambition—the number of characters it involves and the large time span it tackles—but it retains, at some cost, similar techniques.

The Last of Her Kind is narrated by Georgette George, a woman from humble and unhappy beginnings in upstate New York, who lands at Barnard College in the late 1960s, only to find her world, and herself, transformed. The novel spans three decades in Georgette’s life, two marriages, two children, and a love affair; but it is not, primarily, an account of its narrator. Or rather, it is a book about its narrator only insofar as her life is defined by two other women. What the narrator of For Rouenna observes about her subject is equally true of Georgette and her two doppelgängers: her sister Solange and Ann Drayton:

Let it be said that I was not harboring any foolish idea that in writing about Rouenna I was bringing her back…

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