An Actual Life; 1996; 252 pages; hard cover; $16.95.
I recently watched Elizabeth Bennet dance around on a tape of the A & E production of "Pride and Prejudice." I love Elizabeth Bennett because she's one of the spunkiest heroines ever, but I have to say she makes me queasy because she always does and says the witty thing, the subtle yet biting thing, the properly spunky and wildly appealing thing. She's about as far away from anything that I am or will ever be as a grasshopper. I have probably been seriously damaged psychologically by ever being introduced to Elizabeth Bennett. The movie just made it worse.
When I wasn't watching "P and P," I was reading "An Actual Life," by Abigail Thomas. Virginia is a heroine I like. She's fallible in a messy way, not like Elizabeth Bennett, who is fallible in a beautiful way. Virginia blunders her way through life doing her best like we all do with parents and relationships and rotten situations that make it seem as if the chips are just stacked against us. Virginia herself admits, "I am far from being a princess or any other worthy person. I don't know what is wrong with me, but I could never smile at anyone the way Snow White smiles at those dwarves. I'd be thinking, Why does he have hair growing out of his ears? or some such terrible thing. This is part of not being a true Christian, but there is nothing I can do about it."
I don't know if Virginia is a true Christian or not, what do I know? I'll tell you what I know. Virginia's a real woman: doubt and insecurity follow her around like lost dogs. The novel opens with her questioning her husband: "Would you have married me if I were a dwarf? Buddy's answer, "I doubt it," causes Virginia to conclude, "This means he never loved me." Sure, Snow White has to smile and flirt with the seven dwarves, but does the Prince? No way.
Virginia defines herself as a kind of nothing--insecure, jealous, open, vulnerable: "There's not even really any me, exactly. I keep changing inside my skin. There's no definite person in here. My voice comes out weird and I hardly ever say anything I mean."
What is endearing about Virginia but really tragic in the way anyone's younger self is tragic is the way she tries, no matter how depressing things get. At the beginning of the novel, Virginia has already gotten pregnant, dropped out of college, and married the father of the child, to try and make the best of things. She and the baby, Maddie, and Buddy, her husband, are going to spend a long, hot summer living with Dot, the woman who raised him. It will turn out to be the last horrible summer of their short marriage. Sensing fragility, Dot tries to make the marriage real, talking Buddy up, taking pictures, admiring them as a family. Life for Virginia is lonely--Buddy is often out late. Worse yet, he spends way too much time with Irene, his high school sweetheart (who works at the Poodle-Rama as a dog groomer). Virginia's only companions are odd Dot, the baby, and an old dog that has taken up residence in the house. (Also, how could anyone not like a novel with a word like "the Poodle-Rama" in it?)
Virginia humors Dot, and comes to love her. Same with the dog. Virginia tries as if trying were a prayer that will make Buddy's feelings blossom and transform their forced union into what Virginia always dreamed marriage would be.
Eventually, Virginia begins to live in her own world, building "tents" out of chairs and blankets all about Dot's house and spending the hot summer days hiding with the old dog and baby Maddie. Perhaps warned by Dot, Virginia's father calls to invite her home for a couple of weeks, and Virginia goes. Life at home, as any reader knows, is not a lot better: "My mother "keeps a handkerchief tucked up her sleeve and she has never chewed gum in her entire life. My mother murmurs 'Thank you, Virginia dear,' when I bring her the treats on a tray. I murmur, 'Oh you're so welcome, Mother.' At moments like this it is impossible for me to believe either one of us has ever seen a human penis."
Virginia has a feeling that she names "big/little." "That's where you feel odd because something is way out of proportion, like an aspirin next to a pillow. It is a physical sensation and uncomfortable, the inside of you wants to get out and run away is the only way I can describe it." Big/little also applies to the way author Abigail Thomas uses irony and paradox. Big/little is the closeness of the meaningful and the meaningless, of laughing and crying. Virginia marries Buddy, only to get to know him better and to find out that they really are strangers. Similarly, in high school, she taught herself, alone in her room, to dance only to be told by a boy that her dancing was too "dirty" for him. I imagine Virginia felt big/little then, as she went on ahead and danced alone at the school dance. "They treated me with new respect after that."
Thomas's use of language--metaphor, the blunt, self-deprecating statement--makes "An Actual Life" another of the great Southern feminine extended hyperbolic monologues--writing that reads like a visit, writing that drives you to little throat noises, to shouts, to laughing your head off and not necessarily because something is funny.
"An Actual Life" is also nostalgia; an older, more objective Virginia seems to be guiding the novel's voice, tenderly and forgivingly looking back on a portion of her youth: her vulnerable and innocent, blundering self. With a kind of honesty that neither Elizabeth Bennett, nor Snow White was ever allowed to have.