Tag Archives: mariner books

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

This has been my first Fitzgerald novel and the story’s topic intrigued me more than anything else. Novalis, Friedrich von Hardenberg’s pen name, under which he became famous for his poetic and philosophical work at the end of the eighteenth century, has been a household name since high school. Yet, I knew little about the man himself or the hefty debates among early German Romantic writers and thinkers at that time on everything from “Weltschmerz” and nature-human harmony to gender relations and the role of poetry in life. With THE BLUE FLOWER Fitzgerald has made an important contribution to the literature on Novalis by creating a vivid portrait of the young von Hardenberg as he lived through a decisive period of his personal life which also saw him imagine “the blue flower” that became the central symbol of Romanticism from then on.

Central to the novel as well as to the man himself was his dramatic falling in love, at the age of twenty two with a twelve year old girl, Sophie von Kühn. Von Hardenberg, was already then a brilliant student of many subjects ranging from mathematics to biology, from literature and philosophy. Sophie, on the other hand, was a precocious child, “of ordinary looks”, without interest or promise in any of these fields. The unlikely match between the two, in terms of age difference, personalities and social status is expertly described by Fitzgerald and the different modes of the young man’s romantic obsession evoked. Livening the intimate and detailed, yet detached observations of the omniscient narrator with frequent lively dialog between the young hero and different close family members and other associates on all sides connected to either of the young lovers, the author also conveys a realistic sense their wider social circles. The author’s skill in conveying daily routines like the once in four months occurring “washday” is admirable. Her wonderful sense of humour is sprinkled throughout such descriptions.

Based on extensive research into von Hardenberg and his close family, using his writing, pertinent correspondence and diaries, official and private documents, Fitzgerald has not only realistically recreated his young adult years against a difficult family background, but also supplied us with glimpses into a politically and intellectually fascinating period of German (Prussian) history. At cultural centres such as Jena, young von Hardenberg encountered no lesser than Goethe, Schiller, Schlegel and other literary and philosophical greats of the time.

Fitzgerald makes THE BLUE FLOWER and interesting and intriguing book to read, in particular for readers with familiarity of the wider contexts, both in terms of philosophy and social politics or willing to explore these themes further. As a stand alone novel, without the reader’s knowledge of the time, it is not totally successful in my opinion. To derive full satisfaction the many insinuations and oblique references would have to be either better developed into the background, or the novel completely built as fiction without any intention to veracity and authenticity.


Save Your Own by Elisabeth Brink

The protagonist/narrator in Elisabeth Brink’s” Save Your Own” describes herself as “a full-grown woman who looks like a ten-year-old boy, and not even very handsome or cute one at that.” Gillian Cormier-Brandenburg is a twenty-six year old emotional wreck. Her overly controlling parents raised her to be a compulsive student and she has no friends, male or female. Gillian is enrolled in Harvard Divinity School, but her dissertation on secular conversion experiences is going nowhere; she is in danger of losing her fellowship. In addition, she suffers from narcolepsy; she tends to fall asleep during episodes of stress.

In a desperate effort to get her dissertation off the ground, Gillian takes a minimum-wage job at Responsibility House, a state-subsidized residential treatment program for female drug addicts and alcoholics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What a culture shock this proves to be! Sheltered, timid, tiny Gillian suddenly finds herself trying to communicate with profane, sexually active, and aggressive women (half are former prison inmates at the women’s correctional facility at Framingham) who are filled with rage and frustration.

“Save Your Own” is reminiscent of Elinor Lipman’s fiction in Brink’s depiction of offbeat individuals who are struggling to find their place in a tumultuous and hostile world. The residents of Responsibility House are vivid and fully realized. They include Janet Tremaine, a charismatic gay woman with a formidable physique and considerable self-confidence, Florine, a former streetwalker and addict with a secret ambition to be a professional baker, and Stacy, a sadistic and resentful individual with a talent for organization and a penchant for spying on her fellow Responsibility House residents. Gillian graduates from keeping tabs on her clients to being their counselor and confidante. She even fights to win them more autonomy, since she firmly believes that “a freer, less bureaucratic society would achieve greater therapeutic results.”

This is an entertaining, quirky, and touching coming-of-age story in which Gillian slowly changes from a terrified and dysfunctional mouse into an articulate and compassionate adult. Brink’s sardonic humor, lovely descriptive writing, and insight into the psychological lives of her characters make “Save Your Own” a satisfying debut novel.

Save Your Own; Brink, Elisabeth; Mariner Books; $13.95