Elizabeth Crane has approached the timeless topic of the mother-daughter relationship with nerve, humor, and ingenuity. In “The History of Great Things”, Elizabeth and her mother Lois alternate narrating each other’s stories, discovering one another’s secrets, and unpacking their complex connection. Each speaks in second person, retelling the history of the other, often to interruption, explanation, and dissent. Crane’s approach is original and disarming. The reader gets to eaves drop as these characters reveal one another, sometimes with great fidelity to the “truth” and other times with admitted creative license. In the end, the reader finds that the book is an exposition on mothers and daughters, on the role of women across generations, and on the sense of self.
Lois, the mother, is a mid-American woman caught between convention and her dreams. Growing up in the 40s and 50s, she is a woman who quickly deduces the inequities between women and men.
“You have by now gathered a certain amount of information about what the man does versus what the woman does. The man, as you add it up, does whatever he feels like or doesn’t, and the woman does everything else. The why of it, you have no idea.”
A “good girl”, she holds to convention, marrying young and following her new husband wherever his work takes him. Early in her tenure as a young housewife and mother, however, a spark is lit within her and her ambition to be an opera singer and a big city star engulfs her. Through the eyes of her daughter, we see Lois as a real woman – someone who inspires pride and admiration in her daughter for following her dreams, yet also someone who has caused great hurt and a sense of abandonment in a daughter who is often left behind and held at a distance.
The daughter Elizabeth, as her mother casts her, is a tempestuous, rudderless girl. With a long-proclaimed desire to be some sort of artist – performer, actor, writer…it doesn’t seem to matter – Elizabeth’s character drifts through life, meeting regular catastrophe with a sense of indignation.
“Your worldview is perilously close to being fixed on Life Is a Series of Events Specifically Designed to Fuck with Your Head. That’s a worldview, right? You’re from New York. What else would it be?”
Elizabeth’s sense of persecution and low self-esteem are comedic and yet eerily sympathetic.
“Fortunately, one displeased person in a room is more than enough to confirm your inadequacy as a human … you have a sonar for that person, and a memory for nothing else.”
And really, the criticisms leveled against her are her own, for it eventually becomes clear (this gets a little meta, beware) that the book’s premise is even more complicated than it seemed; the story is actually being crafted by the daughter trying to commune with the spirit and memory of her mother. In other words, “Elizabeth” is narrating both as herself telling her mother’s story and as her mother telling Elizabeth’s story. At one point, in one of the frequent asides which could be disruptive but are actually endearing, Crane writes in the voice of “Elizabeth”: “I’m noticing that it’s extremely uncomfortable but also way easier for me to write as you than to write as you writing me.”
Elizabeth Crane has done something truly unusual with this novel. She has ostensibly bared her soul, writing an autobiographical-seeming story full of self-deprecating humor and tell-all anecdote.
“Secretly – you’ll never admit this to anyone – even though you like kids, and have always been good with them, you’re not so sure you’d be a good mom anyway. You’ve lost your patience babysitting a time or two, and fear that any parenting style you might come up with would be a response to whatever you think I did wrong, like a lot of parents do, like maybe I did, maybe, which of course only fucks up their children differently.”
Not only is that sentiment familiar in a way that is both comforting and haunting, but the passage itself is indicative of the story’s trope – “you’ll never admit this to anyone” written by her pretending to be her mother airing her secret to the world. Crane has created a memorable novel using alternating voices (and voices within voices) to great and enchanting effect.
Thank you to HarperCollins for the complimentary review copy.