By Any Name
- While researching her mother’s life story, the youngest of Rida‘s four daughters slowly comes to learn more about her spirited, non-traditional, sassy, self-confident parent in well-known YA author Cynthia Voigt’s first novel for adults in many years. But as brassy originality clashes with unusual allusions and some occasionally hard-to-love characters, is the end result worth reading?
Our narrator has no name for pages (it’s eventually revealed to be Beth), though she is forever burdened with the duty of being both the youngest in the family and the one to drag the family’s history into proper order, something she’s doing in the hope of enlightening her own children. And collect she does, with amused curiosity, and pours over her mother’s lively past with honesty and zeal.
Her mother’s pre-marriage history is a slippery one; Elfrieda “Rida” Smith was a foundling who grew up at a California convent school, and abandoned a promising career as a legal stenographer to pursue her greatest passion – dancing – with the USO during World War II. Rootless, she has a gauche sense of purpose, self-confidence, forthrightness and charm that can either be repulsive or captivating, depending on the scene; a side effect of that proves to be ego, for who could resist the brassy originality of Rida’s very existence?
She meets her daughters’ father when she’s dragged to a party at an officer’s club, and her dazzling pushiness drags her very New England, non-dancing, non-sparkly quarry into forgetting himself and, shock of all shocks, opening himself up. While Rida has no roots, Spencer Howland has a past that goes all the way back to the Mayflower, with a nosy and snobbish extended family that almost makes him yearn to be an orphan. It’s not love at first sight, but they immediately understand each other, and her crude honesty has a tendency to make him lose his grip on his autocratic side, just as much as his literary advice encourages her to read and expand her intellectual horizons. It works out so well for them that Rida dumps her four other fiancés and he dumps the traditional girl his grandmother picked out for him back home and they get married. When Spencer informs his stuffy grandmother that he’s married a USO girl without her permission or presence, it touches off a cultural clash that lasts throughout the Howland’s marriage, a struggle between the original, modern-minded Rida and the traditional Howland family for control of Spencer’s future. But time passes, hearts break, and it’s up to young Beth to chronicle it all.
Some books seem destined to become movies, and By Any Name is the most cinematic of all of Voigt’s works thus far. Try to read about Rida’s adventures without picturing an 80s/90s-ish Bette Midler in the lead, with Tommy Lee Jones as Spencer and Lauren Bacall as Grandmother.
This is something that works both for and against the novel. It makes the tome an easy, breezy and intensely engaging read that causes time to fly by painlessly; Voigt is – as always – in her element as she takes us into the heart of another coastal New England town and its social mores. On the other hand, it also lacks the heavy sense of gravitas, sober character study and import that the best of Voigt’s books carry with them. Often many of the supporting characters come off as paper-thin caricatures. The cinematic quality of the book is what ultimately lends to its predictability.
As a character, Rida is both a breath of fresh air and, frankly, annoying. All of that self-assurance can be a rootable factor but it can also make her come off as high-handed and arrogant, endearing and unlikable in the same breath, which rounds her into someone familiar and human. But her world weariness often leaves her paces ahead of the plot; naturally she (and Spencer, who is enlightened, thanks to her) is the only one worldly enough to understand Spencer’s brother’s homosexuality or see the pitfalls in his sister’s affair with a married man and her eventual liaison with an Italian gardener. Only Rida is kind, smart, and cynical enough to know the score – and Good God, can that get annoying! Voigt does try to even this out by displaying Rida’s hypocrisy and oblivious insensitivity to others, but it’s clear the narrative thinks she’s more of a Mame than a Mama Rose. She’s the kind of character who protects her daughter from a suspected pedophile teacher by attending class every day to keep her safe, then strongly hints to the guy that he should find a new line of work. Thus, when a sudden third act twist dims her light, the illness and inevitable infidelity reveal is predictable, and the daughters’ personalities aren’t strong enough to carry the rest of the book.
Another problem the book faces is the superfluousness of its male characters. If the girls are ciphers who follow literary tropes to a tee, then the men barely exist at all, with only the cartoonishly evil Grandfather coming fully to life. The rest of the men are tropes with clothing, and you know you’re in trouble when you have characters refer to a beloved father character as a strong presence ‘like a stage backdrop’ for their lives. The rest of the men are Ya Ya Sisterhood types who grin and bear the colorful women in their worlds or are piggish, cheating trash – there’s very little middle ground.
The most distracting element is Voigt’s choice of literary allusions in the prose. There are a number of heavy parallels drawn to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women laced throughout the story; Pops suggests Rida reads the book to polish up her literary acumen – so naturally their daughters are eventually named Meg, Beth, Amy and Jo, and those daughters’ personalities mirror Alcott’s young ladies, with Meg being the practical oldest, Jo being a romantic dreamer who’s a bit of a tomboy, Amy the popular one, Beth the socially introverted intellectual, etc. And Rida’s relationship with Spencer’s grandmother mirrors Jo’s combative relationship with Aunt March in Little Women to some degree. The attorney Mumma works for pre-marriage is named Alcott, Spencer’s family lives in Louisburg Square, where Alcott also lived for a time, and one of his maids is named “Little Louisa”. This ends up feeling a little bit heavy-handed, to the point where readers wait for an ice skating mishap or a trip to Paris to happen. By the time Spencer’s sister Anne’s fiancé anglicizes his name to John Brooks (which Rida NATURALLY refuses to call him or have her kids call him!) I could do nothing but groan at the page in frustration. You wrote Seventeen Against the Dealer and Izzy Willy Nilly, Ms. Voigt – you’re better than over-referencing the work of your idols.
Yet the very end and beginning of the book manage to catch something so essential about life that it’s hard to resist recommending it. By Any Name won’t stand the test of time next to Voigt’s best work, but it’s worthy of at least a read through.