HOW CLARISSA BURDEN LEARNED TO FLY by Connie May Fowler
“On June 21, 2006, at seven a.m. in a malarial crossroads named Hope, Florida, the thermometer old Mrs. Hickok had nailed to the Welcome to Hope sign fifteen years prior read ninety-two degrees. It would get a lot hotter that day, and there was plenty of time for it to do so, this being the summer solstice. But ninety-two at seven a.m., sunrise occurring only three hours earlier, suggested a harsh reckoning was in store for this swampy southern outpost.”
Review by Terez Rose (MAY 2, 2010)
Clarissa Burden is having a bad day. Itâ€™s hot, her marriage is stuck in a bad place, her writing is even worse. A two-time bestselling novelist, she hasnâ€™t written a decent sentence in thirteen months. Instead she pours her mental creativity into fantasizing about the accidental (but not necessarily unwelcome) death of Iggy, her verbally abusive artist husband, sixteen years her senior. After seven years of marriage, Iggy largely ignores Clarissa and instead focuses his attention on photographing and sketching young, pretty nudes in Clarissaâ€™s back garden. He hasnâ€™t touched his wife in years. He resents and scorns her commercial success even as he milks the financial benefits. Things are not good.
Iggy and Clarissa are not the only occupants of the majestic old house Clarissa bought six months earlier. Nearly two hundred years earlier a Spanish woman, Olga Villada and Amaziah, her common-law husband, a free black under Spanish law, lived here with their young son, but were brutally murdered. Now, their spectral presences roam the house. Mysterious soundsâ€”the strains of violin playing, the rolling of a childâ€™s ball upstairsâ€”distract Clarissa, as does the one-armed tree-cutter at her door, who is not what he appears to be. Even the fly in the kitchen (whose thoughts the reader is privy to) wonâ€™t leave her alone today.
Iggy, ignoring Clarissa, takes the car and flits off to lunch with the models, leaving Clarissa with only the decrepit old pick-up for transportation, which holds four monthsâ€™ worth of decomposing trash. A trip to the dump commences a chain of bizarre events that will serve to change her life. A detour to a cemetery populated by the mournful, murmuring spirits of women and children who died from abuse and neglect. A stop at a roadside restaurant that produces a new friend and soon after, a new car. There is an encounter with a boy and his pet rattlesnake, the spectacle of a dwarf carnival being unloaded and set up outside town. Another visitation from the ghost family back at the house, where Olga Villada spectrally nudges a dossier into view, citing her as the original owner of hundreds of acres of land, the house, and including other burning facts, previously unknown to Clarissa.
One of Fowlerâ€™s particular skills as a writer is the interweaving the spirit realm within her stories. All get their chance to speak: the spirit women and children at the old cemetery; Olga Villada, Amaziah and their young son; the one-armed tree cutter, whose identity and purpose are ultimately revealed. Even the fly becomes a ghost here and has his say (a case of unrequited love toward Clarissa, even after she squashed him dead).
Despite this, however, there are times when the story comes off as curiously un-magical. Granted, the language is always polished and descriptive, with Iggy a convincing, if one-dimensional villain. The situations and secondary characters are quirky and lively. But the breezy humor, which has worked so well in Fowlerâ€™s other novels (notably in The Problem With Murmur Lee ) falls flat here. Sometimes, in truth, the prose approaches chick-lit goofy. Clarissa is counseled throughout the story by her â€śovarian shadow womenâ€ť a chorus of advisors whose voices alternately resemble Bea Arthur, Christiane Amanpour (a CNN correspondent, in case youâ€™re dim like me and didnâ€™t catch the analogy), the Wicked Witch of the West and a hero version of herself called Super Dame. They are soon joined by an inner Deepak Chopra who sports big red sunglasses studded with ruby rhinestones and spouts soothing New Age platitudes. Deepak and the Greek chorus of girlfriends are funny for the first few references, but soon lose their novelty and efficacy. And the flyâ€™s digressions? They grow so annoying you just want to kill the damned thing to shut it up, only itâ€™s a ghost so youâ€™re pretty much stuck with it.
Itâ€™s as if Clarissaâ€”and perhaps the writerâ€”are caught up in jokey, digressive prose as a way to avoid exploring a bigger story here, the painful, difficult-to-tell one. Only the side stories of Olga Villada and her family, the trip to the cemetery, and references to Clarissaâ€™s childhood under an abusive mother seem to reveal true heart.
Fowler has proven herself, in past efforts, to be a magical, wondrously talented writer, fearless about plumbing the depths of painful issues, including domestic abuse, alcoholism and death, but never without that touch of magic and redemptive love that tempers the story so well. Sugar Cage, her 1991 critically acclaimedÂ debut, is deserving of all its praise. The voodoo mysticism, the humanity of the characters, the inviting way the prose allows you into each of the several narratorsâ€™ stories, all heralded the arrival of a talented writer, which she continued to demonstrate in ensuing novels. Before Women Had Wings (1996) is a riveting, bittersweet story with its young protagonist who allows us to witness the magic of youth right along the girlâ€™s hardship and unspeakable pain. The Problem With Murmur Lee (2006) uses humor and lively characters to explore the life and tragic death of Murmur Lee, hitting such a pitch-perfect note that the reader canâ€™t help but read and read. No easy feat, any of these. Difficult acts to follow.
In the end it takes Clarissaâ€™s visiting writing friend, Leo Adams, a former student and admirer, to break the meandering, digressive bonds that seem to be holding both character and writer back. Over a shared meal of burgers and fries, Adams and Clarissa leaf through the dossier that reveals the full story behind Olga Villadaâ€™s house, the violence, destruction, racism and hatred. â€śThis is your story,â€ť Adams tells Clarissa. â€śThis is what you ought to be writing.â€ť
“She looked at him; his eyes appeared lit with a certainty that Clarissa could not bear. How could she explain that he had no idea what a dark and dangerous place her internal landscape really was? She wanted to agree with him. He would like that. It would make for nice chitchat. But she couldnâ€™t. She could not lie about her current capacityâ€”which was zeroâ€”to immerse herself in horrors committed by monstrous men. What amounted to a hypersensitivity to torture or cruelty [â€¦] prevented Clarissa from agreeing with Adams or admitting to herself that perhaps the story of Olga and Amaziah Archer was what the blank, mocking virtual pages of her word processor were waiting for. In her mind, the letters lined up: RISK. And then she revised the one-word directive, turning it into a two-word warning: TOO RISKY.”
In this passage, I felt like I was seeing Clarissaâ€”and the authorâ€”the real ones and not the jokey, digressive ones, understanding their issues and fears, for the first time. Boom. Magic. And in the ensuing scene, the confidences exchanged with Adams, his words of support and empowerment, we find the redemptive love Clarissaâ€™s story so sorely needs, giving her the power to finally confront the now-despicable Iggy and spread her wings and fly.
How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly is a very different book from Fowlerâ€™s other efforts. Itâ€™s like Connie May Fowler Lite. She is, nonetheless, a worthy writer to read, and while this effort might disappoint some fans, others might find this lighter touch to be more to their liking. Because, in truth, the full octane writing in her other novels can be heavy stuff indeed. But they are all treasures. They are a product of writer who has mined her inner landscape, probably at great personal cost, to produce some real gems.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 17 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Grand Central Publishing; 1 edition (April 2, 2010)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Connie May Fowler|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our short reviews of:|
- Sugar Cage (1992)
- River of Hidden Dreams (1994)
- Before Women Had Wings (1996)
- Remembering Blue (2000)
- The Problem with Murmur Lee (2005)
- How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly (2010)
- When Katie Wakes: A Memoir (2002)
Movies from books:
- Before Women Had Wings (1997)