A Bookish Life
Bookmarked: Reading my way from Hollywood to Brooklyn
Wendy W. Fairey. Arcade Publishing. New York. 2015.
Wendy Fairey’s childhood years in California and at boarding school speak eloquently to the experiences of shy, bookish children growing up everywhere: they will have encountered many of the books that formed part of her childhood in their own formative years. Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield and the works of George Eliot are all books that we are intensely familiar with and which have colored and informed the way in which we negotiated the world growing up.
Wendy Fairey is foremost an academic. Holding a PhD from Columbia University, she teaches literature and creative writing at Brooklyn College, where she was formerly a dean. But while this book is informed by her academic experience, as when she discusses the transition of the novel’s protagonist from orphan to immigrant, it is foremost a compelling and sweet account of her love affair with books.
Many readers will relate to the immediate and intimately recorded fashion in which Wendy Fairey saw the world through books. Most poignant are her reflections on how David Copperfield resonated with her as a young girl – she saw her mother in David Copperfield’s sweet, girlish mother, and her own detested stepfather in Mr. Murdstone. Growing up, Fairey often self-consciously identified with David Copperfield and, in her adult years, shuddered with recognition when re-reading how David bit Mr. Murdstone’s hand in retaliation. Also engrossing is Fairey’s meditation on her resemblance to the protagonists of Vanity Fair and Jane Eyre (a novel she admits left her cold, even as she taught it successfully to generations of undergraduates) – she points to the moments in her life in which her negotiation of identity and position corresponded to the tactics of Becky Sharp and Jane Eyre. She also makes a convincing argument for the essential similarity of these intrinsically entrepreneurial protagonists.
A fascinating aspect of Fairey’s story – and one she unfortunately does not delve into in much detail – is her extraordinary literary pedigree. Her mother had an affair with F. Scott Fitzgerald in his last years and their romance centered often around his enrolling her into his own “university of one,” as well as upon the literary roles they took upon themselves in their love-making. For instance, Fairey’s mother played Becky Sharp to Fitzgerald’s Rawdon Crawley or Jos Sedley.
While Fairey’s description of her lifetime engagement with the works of Dickens, Thackeray and Eliot is immensely beautiful and relatable, her work falters in the later chapters. Her meandering description of To the Lighthouse, often rehashing the same arguments over and over again, seems intended merely to satisfy a page count. Also, Fairey’s last chapter, detailing her experiences reading and teaching Indian literature in the US and France, against the backdrop of her gastronomically-fraught visits to India, is riddled with errors. She identifies the Pakistani Bapsi Sidhwa and the Sri Lankan-born Michael Ondaatje as Indian and also indulges in horrifyingly naïve commentary about her affinity for Ganesha and Kali. She also misspells Kiran Desai’s name on several occasions. On the other hand, Fairey’s description of her troubled and traumatic negotiation of her Jewish identity, one she discovers later in life, is compelling.
Bookmarked is a book many avid readers would wish to have written themselves. For the most part, the enjoyment in reading Fairey’s book comes from our instant identification with her literary encounters. Like her and like Jane Eyre, we have been childish readers recessed behind curtains and in the dark corners of sofas. But Bookmarked leaves us with a feeling that so much more could be said. Fairey offers tantalizing glimpses of moments when her interaction with other women is prefigured through their enjoyment of the same text, but she does not delve deeply into this potentially interesting topic. She is also skittish about delineating the extent to which the shadow of F. Scott Fitzgerald loomed over her young life. In sticking to what are essentially academic texts, situated irrevocably in pedagogy, Fairey does both herself and the reader a disservice. I’m certain that the works of Roald Dahl, Joan Aiken and scores of other children’s writers could have added their own unique color to Fairey’s honestly and wistfully recounted childhood years. Ultimately, a book that recounts a childhood anchored to Faery and the imagination through the medium of literature deserves a much bigger canvas.
About the author:
Adreyo Sen is pursuing his MFA at Southampton College. His thesis is a novel that incorporates elements of magic realism and fantasy.