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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Apple Cake," by Allegra Goodman

Issue Date: July 7 & 14, 2014

Title: "Apple Cake"

Author: Allegra Goodman

Plot Summary: Jeanne, the youngest of three elderly, close, yet constantly-bickering sisters, lays on her deathbed, dying of lung cancer at age 78. Her older sisters, Sylvia and Helen, are still in perfect health. As Jeanne's adult children and their families, as well as those of her sisters, visit their dying mother/sister/aunt/grandmother, the dysfunction (relatively mild though it is) in the family gets revealed. In particular, Helen and Sylvia bicker about whose apple cake is better. What's lost in all this family tension and in-fighting, is genuine attention to Jeanne and her mental state, which Jeanne bears with a true youngest sibling's trickery and manipulation. When she gets fed up of them waiting for her to die, she simply decides not to, and goes on living for nearly two months. When she finally concedes the fight, her sisters quarrel over her last wishes and, as usual, it becomes more about them than about Jeanne.

Review: If you know me at all or are a regular reader of this blog (an impossibly small Venn Diagram overlap (if it exists at all (Mom? Aunt Donne??))) you'll guess that I probably wasn't thrilled by this story. And you'd be right. It had none of the dark, prurient, supernatural uneasiness of the last story I reviewed from the NYer, so I find myself down off a bit of a high.

This story is a real "reader's story," meaning those who'll enjoy it most are those who read slowly, carefully, and deliberately, and who are willing to put in time -- even a second reading -- to really understand what the author "meant" and truly "get it," and who feel a strong sense of self-satisfaction when they do. Am I such a reader? At my best: Yes. Otherwise I doubt I'd take the time to keep a fiction blog. However, I do have my limits, and when I come across a story like this I butt up against those limits.

Why? I detest stories that are a whirlwind of names and ill-formed characters. If I were to count, and I don't have the time, I'd say there are at least a dozen characters in this story. In fact, it's more like a play than a story, in that it mainly uses one set piece -- Jeanne's deathbed -- and characters seem to cycle in and out quickly, dropping a line or two here, a kvetch or two there, getting into arguments, etc. etc. Except the problem is: Fiction is not a visual medium so the effect doesn't work. The first time I had to stop and go back a few paragraphs and say, "Wait, wait, wiat...who is Xyz? Is it Abc's husband?" I started to get frustrated. By the eighth time I had to do that, I found it hard to push onward.

My second problem is, the overall point made here is so subtle, and the stakes so low, that again, I found it difficult to care about the world going on outside Jeanne's mind. Under the proper narrative guidance, I could be made to care about two sisters in their 80s, squabbling over their sister's deathbed about who makes the best apple cake...but not in this case. Furthermore, the resolution (if you can call it that) is so subtle and low-impact that I blew right by it the first time; and had to re-read the last few paragraphs at least twice more. Still I was left the feeling of, "That's all? THAT is what I wasted the last 30 minutes for?" Disappointing.

The thing that WAS really intriguing in this story, however, was Goodman's look inside the psychology of the  dying. When she writes about Jeanne deciding "not to die," and willing herself to go on for another few weeks despite the clearly impending shut-down of her body due to the cancer, I felt myself completely sucked into the character's point of view. What WOULD it be like to know you're going to die, really know it, feel it in your bones, but still find yourself waking up every morning? I don't know. But Goodman's portrayal of Jeanne's inner life as her physical life drains away were some of the most vivid and frank writing about death, from the perspective of the dying, that I've ever read.

Overall, the story was just a bit too tongue-in-cheeky, a bit too cutesy for me. I can appreciate a good family drama, and the fact that those dramas might get played out on a more subtle, low-decibel level than I'm used to. However, too low-decibel and the author abdicates her obligation to entertain. Which is, I think what happened here.

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