Adventures in Rereading: A. S. Byatt and Abigail Thomas

At the end of last year, I picked out a whole shelf’s worth of books I’ve been meaning to reread. I know that others of you are devoted re-readers, returning to childhood favorites for comfort or poring over admired novels two or three times to figure out how they work. Alas, I’m usually resistant to rereading because I feel like it takes away time that I could be spending reading new or at least new-to-me books. Yet along with the nostalgia there is also a certain relief to returning to a favorite: here’s a book that is guaranteed not to disappoint.

So far this year I’ve finished two rereads, and I’m partway through a third. I’m not managing the one-every-other-week pace I would need to keep up to get through the whole shelf this year, but for me this is still good progress. I’ll report regularly on my experience of rereading.

 

The Matisse Stories by A. S. Byatt (1993)

Byatt is my favorite author. My memory for individual short stories is pitiful, yet I have never forgotten the first of three stories in this volume, so I focus on it here with a close rereading. In “Medusa’s Ankles,” a middle-aged woman goes berserk in a hair salon but it all turns out fine. I remember imagining what that would be like: to let go, to behave badly with no thought for others’ opinions, to act purely on instinct – and for there to be no consequences.

I’d forgotten all the particulars of the event. Susannah, a linguist, is drawn to the salon by the Rosy Nude reproduction she sees through the window. She becomes a reluctant receptacle for her stylist Lucian’s stories, including tales of his wife’s fat ankles and his mistress’ greater appeal. He confides in her his plan to run away. “I don’t want to put the best years of my life into making suburban old dears presentable. I want something more.”

Susannah holds in all her contempt for Lucian and his hip shop redesign until the day he fobs her off on another stylist – even though she’s said she needs an especially careful job this time because she is to appear on TV to accept the Translator’s Medal. When Deirdre is done, Susannah forgets about English politeness and says just what she thinks: “It’s horrible. I look like a middle-aged woman with a hair-do.” (Never mind that that’s exactly what she is.)

In a whirlwind of fury, she trashes the salon. Byatt describes the aftermath, indulging her trademark love of colors: “It was a strange empty battlefield, full of glittering fragments and sweet-smelling rivulets and puddles of venous-blue and fuchsia-red unguents, patches of crimson-streaked foam and odd intense spills of orange henna or cobalt and copper.”

You can just imagine the atmosphere in the salon: everyone exchanging horrified looks and cautiously approaching Susannah as if she’s a dangerous dog. Lucian steps in to reassure her: “We all feel like that, sometimes. Most of us don’t dare. … The insurance’ll pay. Don’t worry. … You’ve done me a good turn in a way.” Maybe he’ll go off with his girlfriend and start a new business, after all. Predictably, the man has made it all about him.

The ironic kicker to this perfect story about middle age and female rage comes after Susannah goes home to a husband we hadn’t heard about yet. “He saw her. (Usually he did not.) ‘You look different. You’ve had your hair done. I like it. You look lovely. It takes twenty years off you. You should have it done more often.’”


“Art Work” briefly, unnecessarily, uses a Matisse painting as a jumping-off point. A bourgeois couple, a painter and magazine design editor, hire Mrs. Brown, a black woman, to clean their house and are flabbergasted when she turns out to be an artist in her own right. “The Chinese Lobster,” the final story, is the only one explicitly about Matisse. An academic dean invites her colleague out to lunch at a Chinese restaurant to discuss a troubled student he’s supervising. This young woman has eating disorders and is doing a portfolio of artwork plus a dissertation on Matisse’s treatment of female bodies. Her work isn’t up to scratch, and now she’s accused her elderly supervisor of sexual harassment. The racial and sexual politics of these two stories don’t quite hold up, though both are well constructed.


I reread the book in one morning sitting last week.

My original rating (c. 2005):

My rating now:

 

A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas (2006)

In April 2000 Thomas’s husband Rich was hit by a car and incurred a traumatic brain injury when their dog Harry got off the leash and Rich ran out into the road near their New York City home to save him. It was a miracle that Rich lived, but his disability was severe enough that he had to be moved to an upstate nursing home. This is one of the first memoirs I ever remember reading, and it made a big impression. I don’t think I realized at the time that it was written in discrete essays, many of which were first published in magazines and anthologies. It represents an advance on the highly fragmentary nature of her first memoir, Safekeeping.

Thomas maintains a delicate balance of emotions: between guilt every time she bids Rich goodbye in the nursing home and relief that she doesn’t have to care for him 24/7; between missing the life they had and loving the cozy one she’s built on her own with her three dogs. (The title is how Aborigines refer to the coldest nights.) As in One Hundred Names for Love and All Things Consoled, Rich’s aphasia produces moments of unexpectedly poetic insight.

Before rereading I remembered one phrase and one incident (though I’d thought the latter was from Safekeeping): doctors described Rich’s skull as “shattered like an eggshell,” and Thomas remembers a time she was driving and saw the car ahead hit a raccoon; she automatically swerved to avoid the animal, but saw in her rearview mirror that it was still alive and realized the compassionate thing would have been to run it over again. I’ve never forgotten these disturbing images.

Unassuming and heart on sleeve, Thomas wrote one of the most beautiful books out there about loss and memory. I’d recommend this to fans of Anne Lamott and readers of bereavement memoirs in general. This is what I wanted from the rereading experience: to find a book that was even better the second time around.


My original rating (c. 2006):

My rating now:

 

Currently rereading: Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes

Considering rereading next: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

 

Done any rereading lately?

18 responses

  1. I’m just writing up a re-reading post! It’s so interesting to see what you remembered from these two and how your impressions changed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems like rereading is a common blogger goal this year! In that most years I only manage 2-4 rereads in total, I’m doing really well to be on my third in February.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good work! I have re-read 1 🙂

        PS How do you make the stars for star ratings on WordPress?

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    2. I think I just did a Google image search for stars and uploaded one of everything from 0.5 up to 5. Then I insert them as images with no alignment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks! I don’t normally use ratings on my blog but might do it for the re-reads as I liked seeing how your ratings changed/didn’t change.

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    3. I’ve started using ratings less as I’m keen to avoid aggro from authors … but I do find them to be useful as shorthand / summing-up.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s why I don’t use them on my blog, but my re-reading ratings are likely to be high, so hopefully no angry authors 🙂

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    4. Good point. Plus a lot of what I’m rereading is by older authors or those with no social media presence, and a couple are deceased.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Carolyn Anthony (Marm) | Reply

    Not lately. But one book I have reread, and would gladly read again, is Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, the memoir of life in the Netherlands, before, during, and after hiding Jews during the Holocaust. Like you, Beck, I’m loathe to reread anything, when there are so many new works to devour. But The Hiding Place is an experience, unforgettable.

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    1. Do you have a copy? If not, I think one came into the free bookshop where I volunteer last week. I could set it aside for you. ________________________________

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  3. Congrats on the rereading progress! That’s one of my goals this year too, but I haven’t yet started on it. Although I did pick up Pym’s Excellent Women yesterday and considered rereading it. Soon! (If I reread 4 books this year I’ll consider that a win.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d like to read that Pym. If I get through 5 rereads in 2020 that will be more than I’ve managed in any year that I can remember, and any more would be a bonus!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Congrats on the rereading. It is hard to set aside newer, or at least fresh, reads in favour of returning to familiar territory. It sounds like both of these were rewarding enough to help you set a new record.

    You may have mentioned this before, as I recall you discussing her book(s) earlier, but in the Thomas memoir, is Harry “saved” in the end? Sheesh, what a horrible event to have happen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Harry the dog is fine. Thomas reflects on the irony that she turns to this creature for comfort even though it was the cause of her husband’s accident.

      I’m on to rereads #3 and #4: Flaubert’s Parrot and A Visit from the Goon Squad buddy read with Laura T.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m just starting On Beauty by Zadie Smith today! It’s a first read for me, as I try to read through all of her books this year. So far, I’ve really loved White Teeth, but I wasn’t impressed by The Autograph Man, so I’m hoping on Beauty is more like the former 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you enjoy! I think it will be in my next batch of rereads, especially since this is the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Prize. The Autograph Man is definitely her weakest book. (The only one of her novels I haven’t read is NW.)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] last two rereads ended up being as good as or better than they had been the first time around; these two, however, […]

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  7. […] A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, this was even better the second time around – I can see that the […]

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