There is something wonderfully scrappy about Harriet Stedman, the main character in Joann Kobin’s Woman Made of Sand: A Novel in Stories. If Harriet were a star in a movie, she would probably be in a foreign film rather than in a box office hopeful churned out from Hollywood. She wouldn’t be glamorous enough for the Hollywood version. She would be too real, too down-to-earth, too woman-next-doorish. Though a looker in her own right, she wouldn’t be thin enough or pretty enough, and when she had to cry, her sobbing would lead to red, swollen eyes and blotchy skin, her body heaving and quaking, her face covered in too much snot for one delicate tissue to absorb. Though it definitely would not do for Hollywood production, when it comes to good fiction, it does just fine. In fact, a character like Harriet could not be much better.
Kobin’s novel is “told in stories.” Like the prevalence of the memoir several years ago, the latest trend in fiction is just that: a “novel in stories.” Not that this hasn’t been done before. John Updike created his own version of “a novel in stories” back in the late 1960s when he peered into the lives of contemporary couples—how they lived, loved, procreated, fell out of love, fell out of friendships, aged—homing in on one couple, the Maples, in his collection Couples. A “novel in stories” frees the writer from the constraints of chronology and the arc of suspense, though the truth is, the novel is one of the freest forms of writing there is. If it works, anything goes. Either way, it definitely works for Kobin. We are drawn into the tangle of lives she creates, whether we see them from beginning to end or through a kaleidoscope of colors and passageways.
On each page we weave through the lives of Philip and Harriet Stedman, their children as babies and as adults. Later we enter the lives of Philip and Marianne (his new, young, svelte wife), and Harriet as she builds a career for herself, dates, and steps lively through middle age, releasing and tugging on the lives of her children and ex-husband like the string on a kite. Watching the characters grow and change, win and lose, rise and fall, we find ourselves pressing our noses against the window of their lives as if they are people we know, people we care about, perhaps seeing how their lives and choices compare with our own.
In “Dancing With Time,” Harriet and Philip host a New Year’s Eve party, but a snowstorm keeps all but one couple away, who decide to walk through the white blanket of stillness to celebrate with their friends. Paul, the husband, is a potter and dying of lung cancer. Each visit, he brings another mug or bowl, glazed blue-green or mustard ochre. Harriet cherishes the friendship she has with Paul, and during the party, in a moment when time stops and she can see clearly both forward and backward, she wishes that an aborted kiss they shared a year earlier under a bunch of mistletoe had led to more. That way, she would have something more of him to hold onto, something more than memories and a collection of earthenware mugs. Before the party, Harriet is feeling sad, panicked almost. Hearing her kids in the kitchen making miniature foods from Play-Doh, she stares out the window: “Snow frightens me: its relentlessness, its power to cover up all that’s familiar. I leaned my chin against the back of the couch and watched the feathery dots smash against the window. It was the last day of the year.”
“Discipline and Will” brings three generations of the Stedmans together to watch Eric, Harriet and Philip’s grown son, perform in a professional ballet. For the big weekend performance, Harriet is there, as are Philip, his new wife, and baby, making Harriet feel to her children like she had “become a far-off moon to new, more radiant parents.” Matina, Eric’s feisty model turned medical student sister, is also there, as is Philip’s mother. They are all proud of Eric, of his discipline and willpower, of his abilities, his specialness. When, at dinner following the performance, he announces he is quitting ballet, that he just wants a normal life of friends and normal meals and reading the paper in bed on Sunday mornings, his father shouts at him and everyone else deflates, as if his success, his diligence of mind and body, were holding them all up. “We were groping for ways to move beyond the moment…” says Harriet. “What did Eric want? His own life back, ordinary prerogatives? I took a deep breath and tried to signal my assent. Not easy. I had to tell myself that this dance hadn’t begun and wouldn’t end in the ways we’d been taught to believe. It had its own wild and frightening sort of beauty. I love it and wanted more.”
By the last page of the book, we know this: We will miss Harriet and her family. We may wonder about her next week or next year. What is she doing today? Is she a grandmother yet? We wonder about her and in that moment of wondering, we see the passage of our own lives with a sharper clarity. Life, it seems, is a bit like crayoning in a coloring book. We mean to color inside the lines, keep everything neat and orderly, but most times we don’t. The crayon veers outside the thick black lines, swaying and coloring on its own it seems, its waxy stub moving in that magical place between inertia and momentum.