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Turning Points of the Still World: Wendy Lesser

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Pagoda in the Garden
Wendy Lesser
Handsel Books

Reviewed by Lara Kristin Lentini

The Pagoda in the Garden is billed as Wendy Lesser's first novel, but it's really three loosely related short stories about three different female protagonists, all of whom happen to be American writers living in England. The first tale alternates between 1901 and 1926; the second is set in the 1950s; the third spans the years 1973 to 1975. The author takes pains to present contrasting writing styles and historical background appropriate to each period while highlighting the similarities among her heroines, as all three struggle to make sense of the emotional entanglements that define their lives.

The first writer, sitting in a hotel room in New York in 1926, procrastinates writing her acceptance speech for an unnamed award by revising an unfinished story she began a quarter of a century ago. This structural device allows Lesser to distance herself from her occasionally stilted re-creation of a Victorian style; she alternates sections of the earlier story with the novelist's wry critique of the efforts of her younger self ? thus allowing us to forgive Lesser for phrases like: ?The innocent young devil made his appearance at that moment, as if, Faustlike, she had called him up. But he, more prosaic than Mephistopheles, came through a door: the door, to be exact, which separated their adjoining suites.?

But this preciousness and the smiles it provokes are probably intentional; Lesser tells each tale with a light touch. The three stories share elements of farce, which subtly reinforce the sense of social and historical context: in the Victorian story, mayhem at a country estate and problems with the help; in the second, the social mishaps of a pretty, young-ish divorc?e; in the third, jilted lovers hiding in closets as other suitors stop by in the middle of the night.

Ms. Lesser is a specialist at creating protagonists whose self-perceptions are flawed, but whose shortcomings are revealed ? sometimes endearingly, sometimes maddeningly ? in the reactions of those around them. Though Lesser arranges the stories in chronological order, her protagonists seem to portray the process of groping toward emotional maturity in reverse: the voice of the first narrator is the most mature and self-aware, the last the youngest and most na?ve, while the heroine of the middle story is poised, in a moment of mild puzzlement, between the optimism of youth and the wisdom of age.


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