BASS 2011: Allegra Goodman, “La Vita Nuova” from The New Yorker

La Vita Nuova explained how to become a great poet. The secret was to fall in love with a perfect girl but never speak to her. You should weep instead. You should pretend that you love someone else. You should write sonnets in three parts. Your perfect girl should die.

This story is told in such a child-like, sing-song manner, it’s easy to think it’s stupid. In her Book Bench interview when the story was originally published in The New Yorker, the author explains the tone: “The story is told from Amanda’s perspective, but the simple language and storybook syntax allow me to layer Nathaniel’s child’s point of view onto hers.” In addition to the language, the story itself is simple: jilted woman undergoes a series of losses, spends some time processing, moves on.

Thing is – I love Amanda. I want to be Amanda. At the very least, I want her to be my baby-sitter. Mine, not my kid’s. You can see why; the story is available online.

Her fiance dumps her because he thinks she’s a very dark person. Granted, Amanda walks through a cemetery the day after the fiance leaves her. Hey, it’s Boston, you can’t go anywhere without passing a historic cemetery. Maybe this is indicative of the darkness, and she changes it, because nothing else she does is dark. In fact, she’s the brightest, most brilliant shining person I’ve read about recently.

For example, she brings her wedding gown in to her classroom (she teaches elementary school art, which has included puppetry, drumming, and dance), puts it on the floor, and has the kids decorate it. Does this seem dark to you? The kids glue pink feathers to it, and paint on it. The principal calls her on the carpet for it.

“Your personal life,” said the principle, “is not an appropriate art project for first grade. Your classroom,” said the principal, “is not an appropriate forum for your relationships. Let’s pack up the wedding dress.”
“It’s still wet,” Amanda said.

Maybe this is the artists’ point of view: everything is grist for the mill, and non-artists don’t quite get that. Somber subjects – death, broken engagements – are to be hidden, not celebrated. She’s not deterred by the constant reminder she’s on a different wavelength. Maybe this is why I love Amanda. She turns such things into art. Not dark art – nothing painted in blood or immersed in urine or any of the other things that pass for art these days. Art. Beauty.

At the end of the school year, she loses her teaching job permanently, and starts babysitting for Nathaniel, one of the students from her art class. They have a blast. She takes him to the Franklin Park Zoo (I lived in Boston for 20 years and never went there), canoeing on the Charles, to Walden Pond with his friends. She takes him to an ice cream store with flavors like adzuki bean and cardamom (Cambridge, what can I say) and he orders vanilla, maybe because it’s the only flavor he isn’t afraid of. He lives in a house where he can’t dig in the flowers, after all. She finds a copy of Dante’s La Vita Nuova on Nathaniel’s dad’s bookshelf, and interprets it as quoted above. Nathaniel’s dad starts coming on to her; she deflects his advances.

The pivot occurs when she and Nathaniel visit a particular shop:

They went to a store called Little Russia and looked at the lacquered dolls there. “See, they come apart,” Amanda told Nathaniel. “You pop open this lady, and inside there’s another, and another, and another.”
“Do not touch, please,” the saleslady told them.

But Amanda is not a do-not-touch woman. She dreams about the dolls. She buys a set of blank Russian dolls, and paints them to correspond to her life in stages – toddler, schoolgirl, art student, bride, babysitter. She starts painting sets of dolls for others: Nathaniel’s father, her fiance, a friend, and then total strangers. “She started thinking about fellowships. She imagined group shows, solo shows. Refusing interviews.” In this way (I think), she paints her own sixth doll, the one after babysitter, with her life. La Vita Nuova. Dark? Hardly. I want to paint a set of those dolls. It’s an incredible idea for art therapy.

It’s one of those stories where the parts are so much more than the whole, I think. That’s not the way “great” literature is supposed to work. But it makes a damn good read.

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