Monday, September 11, 2017

Edith's Diary by Patricia Highsmith

I've loved and cheered for protagonist who were objectively put, awful human beings, (Alex, A Clockwork Orange, Humbert Humbert, Lolita, Holden Caulfiled, Catcher in the Rye, Katniss Everdeen The Hunger Games) I don't know that I'd ever cheered for a character whose actions so clearly brought about her demise. Almost from the very beginning there is a dichotomy within Edith, the title character, as to her real life and how she views things. The diary is Edith's way of hiding; she hides all her truth's she'd rather not admit, dreams, hopes, and suspicions. It is her fantasy life, and at times if very clearly leaves mark on her real world existence.

It's not an epistolary novel written in journal format should anyone reading this have a thing for such presentation; the diary entries themselves were extremely short and equally infrequent. It's also not some grand plot driven narrative with amazing external forces driving things forward. I hate the term character study, but it may apply: it's long, super intimate and very very personal.

Brett, Edith's husband, is her perfect match in the beginning. Cliffie, there son is a monsterous human being from birth and only gets worse. He has absolutely no redeeming qualities and everyone, parents included, know. As she ages, her diary recalls Brett simply fading away from her life instead of leaving with a younger woman and starting a new family; Cliffie isn't a horrible person, but educated, highly intelligent, married and has beautiful children; she expeirences regular visits from non-existent family and life only gets better.

One of the most powerful forces in her life is George, Brett's elderly uncle, who lives with them as his health declines. Brett doesn't nothing, George becomes invalid, and Edith in every way becomes a nurse. It was a pretty easily identifiable starting place for so much of the resentment that mars her attitude toward other people. George and Cliffie have a very peculiar relationship...

Melanie, a distant and favored Aunt whom Edith really loves is her last bastion of rationality. When she finally succumbs to advanced age and health problems, it's not the stark encounter with Drs. Carstairs and McElroy, but Melanie's passing that truly marks the end.

I never believed she was losing it until a few impartial third-party characters started mentioning things that couldn't be ignored and just didn't add up. At that point, I was sad, sad because I really liked her. I was cheering for Edith the entire time. I do feel was short-changed and dealt poorly, and despite those things I do think she handled it all admirably. It was hard to finally admit that yeah, she's slipping. And while I did understand that she felt so many people were prying into her life at the incessant suggestion of 'see a shrink, see a shrink, see a shrink' before the end I certainly found myself saying she may need some help....

Repression; (hiding, as Cliffie hides the diary in the end!) is her main issue. By the end of the book nearly every character we like or don't like that at least knows Edith is begging her in good nature to talk to someone, and share her feelings. And so, I--even as a reader--feel a bit as though I'm betraying her as I sit here psycho-analyzing a fictional character when all that she wanted was to be let alone. She has problems, repression, and a difficulty stating how she feels, but her problems come from real not perceived wrongs, and wrongs that anyone today or then could identify with. I didn't love her because of her flaws, certainly didn't dislike her for them either. I cheered for her because she had them; and how she reacted to them, they endeared me to her because I could see myself, or anyone else for the matter, behaving in similar fashion.

Part of me feels like all her troubles started with Cliffie being such an unrelenting dick. He's not a spoiled brat just a bad egg with no explanation. He tries to smoother the family cat a child, cheats and gets caught on college entrance exams, gets drunk and break both legs of a pedestrian, puts a gun in his fathers face and laughs, and at the least oversaw if not administered George's overdose: all with no remorse. Edith nor Brett spend a lot of time dwelling on Cliffie, how he came to be who he is or what they can do to change him, but his actions certainly have a tangible impact of Brett and Edith's relationship, and every other facet of their lives.

Alcoholism is real in this book. To the point where it may even play a part in Edith's decline. It could be part cultural and indicative of the time; or these people are drunks. 

Edith is a rare character that never 'grows up' or matures. Her political views were always a bit extreme; and she only solidifies them as she gets older, while Brett and her one good-ish friend, soften and relent a bit in older age. (Boy oh boy did Highsmith have a few Nixon rants in her... ) She became more of an extremist and isolated herself the older she got, and the more untenable her life became. She also completely and totally stopped caring about other people. She became a super crotchety old lady.

I see a lot of Patricia Highsmith in my reading future.   

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