In her latest novel, award-winning fiction writer Jean Thompson displays once again her gift for subtle, telling details that marks her as one of the most astute observers of the life of everyday people, especially women, this time in a small (unnamed) Midwestern college town.
She captures the gestures and talk of three generations of local women and their flawed families and friends, from the end of World War II to the present, women who go along with their situation. With humor as well as pathos and sympathy, Thompson creates a sense for each of the three major figures that nothing will make a difference in relationships — that present behavior cannot redeem the failures of the past — and yet, as death approaches, each woman tries to bring comfort as a caregiver.
“A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl” is so psychologically astute that it might serve well as a prompt for various kinds of therapy — for the dying, the addicted, the maritally troubled. For women who feel trapped in disappointing relationships but accept the roles they find themselves in as mothers, daughters, sisters.
Though the college attracts students from outside, the women at the center of Thompson’s tale, with one exception, are townies with local roots and marginal jobs. Thompson’s achievement is that none of the characters’ fate can be easily anticipated. Nothing slips into cliché or sentimentality. Life is like this: complex, full of inexplicable feints toward love and understanding, even as heartbreak rules over satisfaction, and chance plays a role alongside choice.
The narrative opens with a dying old woman, whose daughter is bringing in batches of lilacs. Before we know names, we know relationships. How different, the old woman, Evelyn, from her daughter, Laura. Evelyn, educated in the East, is a caustic intellectual who sacrificed her studies toward a Ph.D. for her husband, who became an academic star at the college. In fact, she maneuvered him into marriage, once she found out she was pregnant by another man who had left town. No one knows except the reader.
Although Evelyn miscarried and subsequently had children with her husband — Laura and Mark — she remained uninterested in homemaking. Laura, on the other hand, comes from a culture that says get married, have kids. A stay-at-home mom, she, too, has a disappointing marriage. Her computer-savvy husband Gabe drinks to excess and is overtly disappointed in his two children — Grace (who changed her name from Patricia), a spirited young ‘60s type radical, “sandwiched between two angry women,” and younger child Michael, a talented rock musician who slides irretrievably into drug addiction. Lonely, sidelined, Laura finds herself slipping into an affair with her brother’s old high school chum who works as a garage mechanic. No one knows except the reader.
Grace, 26, was “one of those modern women who was completely screwed up.” The relationship with Laura, her mother, is strained, but so was the relationship between Grace and her grandmother. They “were not fond of each other, exactly; neither of them did fond. But they maintained a wary mutual respect, based on what they had in common: a lack of sentiment and an impatience for weakness.”
As for the violent relationship between Grace’s brother and father, “What the hell happened to kids? How did they go from the babies you held next to your heart to . . . Jesus Christ.” The point of view is now the author’s as it pulls away slightly from the domestic tragedies that engulf the particular lives of Evelyn, Laura, and Grace, to explore how nature and nurture — and chance — affect the roles women had assumed (or not) over time in the 20th Century.
The title is taken from a conversation from Laura and her lover. It refers to a sun-rimmed cloud they’re looking at, when he tells her it reminds him of a pretty, pretty girl. The remark is unexpected as it is sincere, and if perhaps strained as a title, it does suggest the book’s underlying theme. As Grace remarks to an uneducated, disheveled bum-like older man she lets pick her up, “We’re not exactly a real old-fashioned type of family.” He replies, “You want to know something, cutie? Nobody’s really is. Not nobody’s.”