[Access article in PDF]
Longing and Belonging, Nostalgia and Mourning in Women's Fiction
Roberta Rubenstein. Home Matters: Longing and Belonging, Nostalgia and Mourning in Women's Fiction. New York: Palgrave, 2001. ix + 210 pp.
Following her two previous books, Home Matters is another fine book by Roberta Rubenstein. With her dependable ability to probe the psychological implications of the fiction she addresses, in this study she explores how such concepts as motherhood, home, and paradise figure in selected fiction by two early-twentieth-century British women—Doris Lessing and Virginia Woolf—and then in fiction by six contemporary American women: Barbara Kingsolver, Julia Alvarez, Anne Tyler, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor.
Rubenstein focuses on the complex ways in which the desires of female characters (and authors) for the consolation of an idealized or even mythologized past, in the form of the lost mother and/or a real or imagined home or "home/land," intertwine with characters' efforts to find stable identities and meaningful places within communities. As they mourn for the lost or imagined past, and even as that mourning is unfulfilled or incomplete, the act of remembering is often recuperative. To capture this effort, Rubenstein exploits the pun in the verb "to fix": both to repair something and to secure it in one's mind. Similarly, she unravels numerous potential meanings of nostalgia, a key concept in her study. Beyond its ordinary meaning, she explores the idea of "lying nostalgia," which in Lessing's fiction means that regaining "the 'authentic' version of past experiences" is impossible. With Marshall, nostalgia becomes "reluctant," as Avey Johnson in Praisesong for the Widow embarks against her conscious will on her quest for authentic selfhood. In Morrison's Jazz, Rubenstein examines how Joe Trace's longing for his unknown mother recapitulates all human beings' nostalgia for infantile bliss. On the whole, Rubenstein argues that these women writers push their characters and themselves through and beyond homesickness, nostalgia, and mourning to reparation and solace.
Along the way, Rubenstein treats her readers to numerous delights. There are the telling concepts and word play: not only the puns on fix and home/land, but also the idea of the "presence of absence" as a replacement for Morrison's "absence of love," the concept of the "beloved imago" to refer to "that phantom of the vanished love object," or the "holographic present tense" to describe the narrative form of Naylor's [End Page 534] Mama Day. Another kind of treat is Rubenstein's ability to find telling intertexts for some of the novels, such as the Odyssey and The Waste-Land for Kingsolver's Animal Dreams, and A Doll's House and King Lear for Tyler's Ladder of Years. Other enjoyable tidbits are Rubenstein's creative analyses of characters' names, such as Yo (and Yoyo) in Alvarez's How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and the proximity of Coney and Cuney in Praisesong for the Widow.
As one expects of a Rubenstein book, this one is well-researched, relying heavily on psychological sources and feminist theorists such as Nancy Chodorow and Susan Stanford Friedman. But Rubenstein's sources are delightfully eclectic. Just when one feels the need for it, she provides the appropriate theoretical framework. For example, upon opening up her discussion of exile in Alvarez's novel, she cites Amy Kaminsky on the psychological effects of exile; her commentary on Lebert Joseph in Praisesong elicits an explanatory note about Legba (the African deity on whom Joseph is modeled); and her assertion that Consolata in Morrison's Paradise is a version of the female Christ-figure is supported with a helpful note.
As the range of sources suggests, Rubenstein does not confine herself to a psychological or feminist approach. When it seems useful, she draws upon the novelists' autobiographical statements; in her treatment of homelessness and exile she leans on postcolonial theory; in her analysis of the chronologically reversed narration of How the García Girls Lost Their...