Reviews of the Promise of a Normal Life: A Novel
Oberlin Alumni Magazine 2023 Spring
A poet’s gift for noticing and naming fleeting detail makes the prose sparkle in this debut novel about a young Jewish girl growing into her life in late-mid-century America and beyond. The unnamed first person narrator glides in and out of moments that reveal surprising scenes from the lives of her family alongside a tumble of vivid experiences that depict her own becoming. The novel was shaped during the pandemic from pieces of a story Gibson had been writing over the decades. Her books of poetry are Girl as Birch and Opinel, and her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Slate, Harvard Review, and Los Angeles Review of Books.
POETRY IN HARRISVILLE: A CONVERSATION WITH REBECCA KAISER GIBSON
Rebecca Upjohn Snyder (RUS): You started a poetry-reading series, The Loom, Poetry in Harrisville, in 2019 with the goal of bringing contemporary published poets and their work together with a local audience. How did that come about? And you live in Marlborough, so how did you choose Harrisville?
Rebecca Kaiser Gibson (RKG): In a way, Harrisville chose me. I taught at Tufts and I hardly knew anyone here. I didn’t have a community except for my yoga people. I’d just come from a poetry manuscript workshop, and the person leading it suggested that I start a [local] reading series. And then two days later I was talking to
Eleanor Drury, and she made the connection and said, “Why don’t you do it here?” Then Chick Colony said, “How about using St. Denis Church?” Each piece fell into place.
I love the notion of the community being here. People can just show up to an event and have it be in their backyards. Also [I like] the idea of bringing poets to an audience that is not a group of competitors. [Typically] people who go to poetry readings are other poets. But here is a group of local people who are interested in lots of different things and who want to come. That is really exciting.
RUS: As part of The Loom reading series, you also run an annual Favorite Poem event where community members bring a poem (by another poet) and share what it means to them.
RKG: One of my teachers was Robert Pinsky, and I based our program on the Favorite Poem project which he created when he was Poet Laureate. He set it up so that people don’t take notes; they read their poem because they love it and just talk. [www.favoritepoem.org/]
US: What drew you to writing in the beginning? And what made you stick with it?
RKG: I don’t know what drew me to it. I just seemed to do it. I dimly remember two poems I wrote some time before age ten. One was . . . There was a cinnamon jar. I stole the cinnamon jar—it was empty. And I wrote a little poem in turquoise blue ink and put it inside this cinnamon jar and closed it up and put it back. Who knows why? What a weird thing. Did anyone ever find it? I don’t remember anyone finding it.
The other poem . . . I lived in Chevy Chase, Maryland. I went out one fall day. There was something in the boxwood hedges around the house. I thought, that’s a partridge. How I knew it was a partridge, I have no idea, but I wrote a poem about two partridges, a cat, and a squirrel. I think that was the title of it. The journal at school printed it.
I don’t know how [the writing happened]. It doesn’t feel like I stuck with it. What it feels like is I didn’t notice I was doing it. For years and years. I’m especially conscious of it because I’ve been trying to go through some of my boxes of journals. I think, why did I write so much? What compelled me to do that because I was just doing my life? It was apparently part of what I did, and I don’t quite know why.
RUS: You taught writing—mostly poetry—to undergrads at Tufts University for 23 years. Did your teaching feed your own writing?
RKG: No, I think it did the opposite. It preoccupied me. When I was working with students, we did a lot of one-on-one. I wanted to make each essay or poem be the best thing it could be, and I got all invested in it. Even though it wasn’t what I was saying. That’s what I wanted to give them. I thought it probably wasn’t happening in most of their lives, [to get] really inside their minds instead of superficially. It was satisfying.
RUS: Your poetry collection Girl As Birch (2022) shares a close observation of the world. You write about personal moments and experience. You also reference myths, paintings, photographs, TV, books, and other writings. There is a joyfulness as well as defiance distilled in the poems. That’s what came through to me. Could you talk about your process for writing a poem?
RKG: I could talk about a poem if you pick one.
RUS: Basin Wild Rye.
RKG: Process can start with a situation. My sister has a house in Idaho. It’s completely barren around her house, but in the distance there are these mountains that have low-lying vegetation, and rattlesnakes, PSS! I was trying to get the sound, partly, like “parched” and “swishing” and “incessantly” and “disaster.” All these words, like a little wind, and these low-lying things. And the strange kind of stillness. It’s this whole thing of “wild seed at the tip of my tongue and the grasses swishing.” She was talking about fires and burning. Her tendency is to see disaster and mine is to not. That’s what this poem is about. In terms of process, a lot of it is how do I translate what I was feeling and not saying? It’s not translating exactly. The word I keep coming up with is embodying. It’s literally putting it in my body and giving flesh to, I don’t know what they are, wispy thoughts? And then there is the whole issue of how the words relate to each other once they get on the page.
RUS: I noticed that there is a lot of sensory description in the poems. It takes you right into the experience of what you’re writing about. And I think you’re also thinking about the space on the page.
RKG: A lot. The space on the page was done many, many times. I often forget I got a degree in directing and I briefly ran a lunchtime theater through the University of Pittsburgh. I was really aware of placement—like directing—on the page.
RUS: You are launching your first novel next month, The Promise of a Normal Life. Congratulations! How was it to write a novel?
RKG: I didn’t set out to write a novel. I wrote various sections of this over decades, while I was teaching. At one point I put it together and sent it to an agent in New York, who was a friend of my cousin. He lost it. For about two years. While he was in rehab. And then an intern found it. And he [the agent] sent me a long detailed, interesting rejection letter. He then told me to send it to three other agents who all promptly rejected it. And then it went back into pieces. Things progressed and I wrote more. During the pandemic, I thought, I can’t go anywhere, maybe I should go into my closet where all these boxes are and see what’s there. Wow, there were a lot of pieces. A friend said something that made me reconsider.
Having done two books of poetry, I had a different notion of how to organize the pieces. Breaking up the chronology was important—moving around in time and space.
RUS: Can you give us an idea of what the book is about?
RKG: It’s about an isolated young woman who is trying on her own to make sense of what she’s experiencing in her family. She doesn’t check her insights with anyone, so she has a perceptive but distorted view of things based on movies and books.
Rebecca Upjohn Snyder
Review in Booklist
by Donna Seaman
It was unusual to have a mother who worked as a doctor in 1950s America, especially one more concerned with glamour than the well-being of her two daughters. The firstborn tells her story without sharing her name, signaling her maddening habits of self-doubt, self-negation, and epic acquiescence punctuated by moments of startling defiance. Poet Gibson’s finely written, mordantly witty, bittersweet first novel portrays a Jewish family at odds with itself and a woman slowly coming into her own during the radical changes of several distinct decades in Massachusetts, California, and during painfully fractured journeys to Israel and Europe. This nuanced study in arrested development and misogyny spiked with excruciating if grimly funny awkward moments recounts a life often as frozen as the fossils in amber the narrator admires during a brief stint of jewelry-making with a lover who helps her finally escape her stultifying marriage only to ensnare her in a new configuration of confinement, albeit one less chilling and conventional. Sleepwalking through painful realities, Gibson’s complacent narrator is nonetheless acutely attentive, making for a sharply provoking woman’s tale and intricate emotional puzzle.
Historical Novel Society Review
Silence or Speak Up? The Promise of a Normal Life by Rebecca Kaiser Gibson
By Trish Macenulty
A teacher of creative writing at Tufts University for many years and a Fulbright Fellow, Rebecca Kaiser Gibson has published the poetry collections Girl as Birch and Opinel and two chapbooks. Now Gibson’s debut novel, The Promise of a Normal Life (Skyhorse, 2023) examines the personal events of one woman’s life while shining a light on gender expectations of mid-20th century America and the shifting of those expectations.
As the main character, a quiet, introverted young woman, endeavors to understand and eventually liberate herself from the restrictions of her class and gender, she observes her life and the lives of those around her, exploring the evolution of what it means to be a woman. Throughout the story, the unnamed, and at times unreliable, narrator reflects on her world in ways that are “partial, internal, inventive and secret.” Gibson said that in all instances, “she lives a private life, having understood that to speak is to risk invective.”
The book begins in 1967 with a trip to Israel. She is eighteen and has recently finished her junior year at the University of Sussex in England. Brought together in this trip, according to Gibson, are “her inchoate yearnings for a very personal relationship to Judaism, to young womanhood, to reconciling reality with what she’s learned from books and movies – and finally, her sense that she is not to speak, not to offer her version of things out loud.” This becomes most apparent when she has a bizarre and unwanted sexual experience on board a ship.
The story moves back and forth in time, taking us to various points from the 1950s to the 1980s, coinciding with the emergence of the Women’s Liberation movement. As the messages of empowerment and sexual freedom filter down to the narrator, they become entangled with a pattern of a silence, which she uses to protect herself. Through the depiction of these experiences, we discover the sources of her different versions of reality.
Although she is Jewish, the narrator is mostly uneducated in Judaism, experiencing only the occasional holidays, such as the Seder, with little context. “Nevertheless, she feels distinctly and early on in her life, a difference from her non-Jewish classmates,” Gibson said.
The narrator tells us that walking home from the first day of school: “I became aware that my mouth was too big, felt my arms awkward in a navyblue sweater.” She wonders, “How in that short stretch of the world between the public school and our large white house…how in that little space of territory had a shadow come down and attached itself to my form?”
Her parents, a debonair couple, who drink martinis and smoke Chesterfields, are proud of their “showstopper” house complete with a maid who answers at the ring of a button, but because they are Jewish, they are not admitted to the country club across the street. The mother Polina, a doctor, enjoys talking about her many lovers, and keeps a naked picture of herself hidden in a hatbox. Leonard is a larger-than-life lawyer, whose family came from Poland. He’s also the narrator’s ally when she’s a child. “It was as if he’d come with me, even just a little way, into some domain that was not controlled by anyone…” she tells us.
Aware of the suppressed resentment of her parents, the narrator lives under a feeling of shadow and shame, which can be traced to her “parents’ seemingly out-sized performance of themselves and their importance,” Gibson said. “This is one way that internalized anti-Semitism works.”
Marriage to a handsome blond gentile with “eyes like blue crystal” does not offer the narrator the release from the shadow she had hoped for. Her wedding ring, which has holes in it, is indicative of the empty spaces in her life. When they go on a trip to Norway, they decide to take separate paths. He goes north and she goes south. The trip through Norway “breaks her out of routine and gives a tiny glimpse by contrast of her unarticulated sense of the prison-like barricade of her marriage,” Gibson said.
Walls are a predominant motif in the book, reflecting the fact that, according to Gibson, “the character is walled in inside herself – painting her own version of things. She resides inside for safety, but suffers, simultaneously, the restriction.” At one point, she remembers an alter ego she assumed in a clown class, which manages to dissolve the walls of expectation.
Throughout the book, the character’s response to the world is to be quiet and seek her own “private, if limited, counsel.” When she does speak up about the incident on the boat to Israel, she is immediately shut down and threatened.
“I find the conflict between the encouragement to ‘speak truth to power’ and the restrictions against just that have been and remain more pervasive and more subtle than we are led to believe,” Gibson said.
While the book is set in the mid- to late-20th century, Gibson finds there are implications relating to silence and speaking up in our own times.
“From the appointment hearing for now Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, to the burgeoning of the #MeToo movement, the phenomenon of sexually abused young women not having spoken up at the time – has become much more visible, its prevalence more wide-spread. The previous pre-emptive assumptions about cynical motives have at last begun to fade,” Gibson said.
“Why they didn’t and felt they couldn’t speak up is finally beginning to be acknowledged.”
About the contributor: Trish MacEnulty is the author of the historical mystery series, Delafield & Malloy Investigations. Visit her website for more information.
Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb
February 8, 2023
Q&A with Rebecca Kaiser Gibson
Q: What inspired you to write The Promise of a Normal Life, and how did you create your protagonist?
A: Many of the sections of this novel were written separately, quite long ago, as stories, over many years and what inspired me then was just a need to shape what was in my head.
However, I can point to an external event that prodded me to form the pieces into a whole. In the recent flourishing of MeToo confessions, made long after the assault described were to have occurred, and, pointedly, watching the Kavanaugh hearings, I was intrigued by the forces that keep women and girls silent and even in denial, for years.
Through that lens, I saw my character’s upbringing, her relationship to her family, her private conclusions about things, all could be seen to contribute to her acquiescence, her secrecy and her micro rebellions.
Q: Why is the protagonist unnamed?
A: While some speculate that the protagonist “refuses to share her name” in an act of self-negation, my thinking is almost the opposite. I wanted to create a world, her world, in which she is the subjective center. If I’d given her a name, I’d have added an external perspective, made her one of many, and removed an aspect of her experience.
Q: The writer Margot Livesey said of the book, “Rebecca Kaiser Gibson writes with a poet’s precision and a novelist’s sense of character as she deftly evokes her narrator’s family, childhood summers, friendships, travels, and love affairs.” What do you think of that description, particularly as it relates to the idea of being both a poet and a novelist?
A: I admire Margot’s own precision and her varied and fascinating characters. I think I understand what she’s getting at with her observation.
What I associate with writing poetry is a sensation of working in four-dimensional space – creating a being of which the elements of echo and assonance, reach and retreat, pause and plunge etc. interact on both a sensed/felt level and a literal one of the “meaning” of words.
The sensation in writing the novel was more like taking a long walk: the terrain was varied but the steps had to land on the ground, and progress had to be made and even noticed. It was a great pleasure to try to manage both impulses in some sort of harmonic tandem. It was fun.
Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: Confession time. I didn’t come up with the title. A friend did – not as a title even, but casually in describing her reading of the book. At first, I resisted. But very quickly I felt the power of it.
Of course, one’s first reaction is What’s Normal? But from the character’s perspective and behavior, there’s a steady, if subtle, attempt to “normalize”, i.e., often justify what she witnesses. And then there’s the issue of The Promise of…. I hope the thread of books, movies and various stars that offer her what she incorporates as “normal” is understood by my readers.
Additionally, I liked the notion that even if much of what’s expected to be normal is artificially manufactured, there is some kind of innate promise that keeps her moving, if haltingly, toward more acknowledgement of herself as a person among and with others.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have two new poetry manuscripts underway – I’m sure you’ll see that there are correspondences with the novel. Their titles are “Linked” and “What if My Waking is a Dream.” Also, I’m working on a series of stories that, like the novel, have hidden, dormant or dozing in my closet for decades and are ready to get finished.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Well, here’s an amusing thing: A designer wanted to surround the book announcement with plants and I was aghast. Where did these fronds come from? I asked, sort of confrontationally. I supported my objection with a quick word search for the word plants – and found very few instances.
I mentioned the conversation to my daughter who said, Mom, they are everywhere. Sure enough, gardens, blossoms, vines–– they are all over the place. I realized then that I am so inclined to find connection in what we call “nature” that I’m unaware that it’s the air I’ve given the character to breathe. Now I’ll need to be aware of that habit I guess…
POSTING Q&As WITH AUTHORS AND ILLUSTRATORS SINCE 2012! Check back often for new Q&As, and for daily historical factoids about books. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/deborahkalbbooks. Follow me on Twitter @deborahkalb.
Shondaland.com ‘The Promise of a Normal Life’ Is Decorated Poet Rebecca Kaiser Gibson’s First Foray Into Fiction
Gibson takes readers into the world of an unnamed narrator.
By Shelbi Polk Published: Feb 8, 2023
Like many of us, poet and educator Rebecca Kaiser Gibson spent some of the early days of the pandemic going through her closets. Unlike most of us, Gibson found piles of writing from the past several decades stacked in a corner of her office. With just a little reworking, The Promise of a Normal Life, Gibson’s first venture into the world of fiction, would be the result of the scenes she found.
The novel’s narrator, a dreamy girl who’s mostly along for the ride of her own life, is never named, though we are deep within her head. Our main character has a relatively peaceful childhood in the 1950s, with a kind father and driven lawyer mother who are often the center of the local Jewish community. As she navigates the world changing before her during the 1960s, her life gets more complicated as she grows up with deeply painful episodes like a sexual assault and a stunted marriage.
Shondaland spoke with Gibson about the experience of writing poetry versus fiction, building a passively observant narrator as opposed to a strong female character, and what it means to be “the silent one” in the Jewish faith.
SHELBI POLK: So, my favorite question to start with is where did this story come from? As broad or as granular as that may be.
REBECCA KAISER GIBSON: Where did it come from? Well, you know, it’s really weird. That’s a kind of spatial question, but it came from time. I wrote sections of the story for years. I sort of forgot I’d done them a long time ago in the ’80s. I did have a version of this, which I sent to an agent, who will remain nameless, for obvious reasons in a second, because he lost it. And a year and a half later, I got a call that said, “I’m really sorry. I lost this, but my intern found it. And here’s what I think.” He had all these comments. At that point, the main character was named Helen, and the structure of it was completely different. The story came from various sections that I just wrote, not thinking I was ever going to put them together. And during the pandemic, it was the year after I stopped teaching, and I thought, okay, it’s really quiet. I can’t go anywhere, and that’s when I found them all. I showed them to a friend of mine, and she said, “I think this is a book.”
The Promise of a Normal Life
By that point, I’d written these two poetry books. And I’ve done a lot of work on organizing the shape of the book. I thought I could put dates in, and then I could move things around. So hopefully, a chapter that comes after a thing that happened hopefully illuminates Oh, why did she do that? Oh, maybe she did it because of that. In retrospect, it looks like I was intrigued by how the mind works, and how it leads to a particular kind of mind that goes from a notion to associations and then back to the notion. So, I kind of like playing with a reader and hoping the reader would follow each part and then feel like, “Oh, we’re here now.”
SP: It’s funny — one of the things I actually had written down was that it feels kind of episodic, which makes sense since it was pieced together from all these years. So, I suppose you were thinking of it in vignettes?
RKG: Yes, absolutely. But it’s interesting. I think the way the character thinks is in episodes, not in linear, chronological order, and that’s part of her difference from her family. They think, “This leads to that, things are kind of orderly, and this is how it happens,” which I think is pretty familiar for people, actually.
SP: Did you have this character in mind as you were writing over the years, or did you build the character and then fall in love?
RKG: Yeah. So, I guess I did. Again, I wasn’t planning it, but that is the way I write anyway. I don’t sit down to write poems. I do little — like I’m trying to give myself a little present for later on. It’s a present from someone I don’t know, and I think, “Oh, okay, I can do something with that.” But I don’t have to take responsibility for it because someone else did it. It’s a weird trick that I do for myself, and I seem to enjoy it.
SP: That is so interesting because one of the things that was fascinating about this character to me was that it’s not that she doesn’t want anything, but she’s very confused about what she wants and how to want something that is not just handed to her. I don’t want to call her passive, but tell me about making a character like that. You pulled it off, but I feel like that’s a really dangerous choice to make.
RKG: Well, that’s really interesting because when I started writing it, I showed it to a woman who was much younger than I was, and she said, “Why is she so passive?” And I stopped writing those little things for several years because I felt so embarrassed. Like you’re not supposed to be passive. Remember the timing of the [Brett] Kavanaugh [hearing]? She gave me permission to write this book. Because I felt like if someone this coherent and upright and functional and smart did not choose to tell what happened to her at the time, why not? And then I thought, “That’s true of this character too.” It didn’t even dawn on her. Her father says, “Don’t,” so she doesn’t. And that “whole silence for reasons other than not telling the truth” was the premise of people who objected to her. All the forces make this character know that it’s not safe to even begin to say what you think because someone else is gonna come along and wipe it out with another version of reality, which isn’t hers. So, she just goes internal as a kind of survival mechanism. And it’s not just about the sexual assault scene, but it’s about everything. She doesn’t say what she’s thinking. She says what she’s thinking to us but not to anyone else. Nobody modulates her experience because she has decided or figured out, whichever it is, that it’s not safe to say what you actually are thinking because it doesn’t fit, and there’s no explanation for it. It’s the Me Too person who doesn’t say, “Me too.”
SP: It’s so hard to write characters who aren’t driven by some big, strong internal desire, but she’s very real. And I think she’ll resonate with a lot of women.
I was so struck by the juxtaposition of her with her mom, who is ambitious, strong-willed, and knows exactly what she wants. Tell me more about that relationship and building that contrast there.
RKG: I think her whole being is a result of that contrast. Her mother is the kind of person who fills the space with her reality and the pieces of her reality. She never tells the complete story to her daughter. She just gives these little punches of truth. I was thinking, “Okay, what would be the choices of a daughter of that kind of mother?” And one of them might be to fight back at the risk, maybe, of being squished. But that might make someone stronger and more able to come up with the language, like a debate or something. But she doesn’t make that choice. I think that choice is a real, motivating thing that will lead to a whole different life. I wonder if I’d written her with a different kind of mother, would she be like that? And I can’t even imagine. Would she have thrived in a kind of warm, gentle, permissive world? Who knows?
All the forces make this character know that it’s not safe to even begin to say what you think because someone else is gonna come along and wipe it out with another version of reality, which isn’t hers.
SP: What was it like moving from poetry to fiction?
RKG: I don’t know if I’ve moved from poetry to fiction, but my husband has always wanted me to write fiction. I’d read him things, and he’d say, “Why don’t you write that?” I don’t even know what I said to him. It’s really fun, actually, is what it is. It’s easier; don’t tell anyone. Because the sentences, they just keep going. They aren’t condensed in the same way, and it just feels different. It feels like a reverie kind of thing, whereas the poetry feels more like I’m entering space. Things are three-dimensional, and things are talking to each other in ways. I had fun writing the title chapters because it felt like that’s what I do with poetry.
The writing of course is really different, but the beginning to put the book out is completely different. When I do poetry readings, so far, I feel like the people who come are people who know me. With a novel, I feel like I may not know those people. Which would be great! You know, it’s a real risky thing because most people don’t pick up a poetry book if they don’t have some kind of way of connecting with it already. Whereas I think they do pick up [other genres of] books. It’s a whole different world.
SP: I was really drawn to our narrator’s observer perspective. She was very careful to watch in a way that almost made her feel like an outsider, even with her own family. I know intention is a tricky place to get to, but was that distance intentional?
RKG: That’s an observation that I hadn’t noticed, and of course, it is true. I hadn’t noticed her observing distances since I was focusing on the fact that the [act of] observing is what is important to her. I think it feels so much more personal and fresh to her. The rehearsed answers that she’s heard about everything on almost every topic — “Now my mother is going to say this, you know. Now the story about the way they met is going to be like this” — but that bores her. She doesn’t engage with it at all. There’s nothing there, so what’s there is all the stuff, all the dimension that’s around the family that she can access, which of course is limited because she has no context for anything. So, she makes all sorts of bad decisions, we would say on the outside. But it’s because she’s just observing and mirroring back what she sees, and it’s unmitigated by other people’s wisdom, even if there were any.
SP: Maybe it’s both? Perhaps it is the best way she can connect, and also the perspective keeps her a little bit apart.
RKG: Which, maybe, that’s part of the survival, actually, to be a little bit apart from what feels closed in: the repeated, ritual conversations. Personally, I also feel like that. I’m terrible at small talk. I can’t stand it.
SP: I was also really interested in her relationship with her religion. She takes comfort in it sometimes. Other times, she doesn’t think about it. It’s a great balance, compared to the more absolutist tradition I was brought up in.
RKG: [Traditionally,] there are four boys usually in the seder service, and I saw in a modern version of the four boys the silent one. I thought, “That’s better than the one who doesn’t know to ask.” It comes to the same thing. They’re silent. But why are they silent? Are they silent because they’re too spaced out to even figure it out, which is often the way it’s interpreted? Or are they silent because they understand something beyond the words? It’s not just the retelling, the “Here’s what happened when …” She would never say this, but it has to do with lots of words of connection, actually. She wants that kind of deep thinking and deep understanding of things. So, it doesn’t feel to me like it has to do with either ritual, or ordinariness, or preoccupation. You’re right — her connection is very intermittent. It doesn’t come up all the time in the book. It just sort of rides a little, and opens up sometimes, and then disappears.
Shelbi Polk is a Durham, North Carolina, based writer who just might read too much. Find her online at @shelbipolk on Twitter.
Scott Schomburg’s Introduction for Reading at The Word, Brooklyn Feb. 16, 2023
Rebecca Kaiser Gibson has written a rare and wondrous book, and I love the title: The Promise of a Normal Life. It looks forward, while the narrator (staring at an old photograph) looks back, following one memory to the next. She writes, then looks; writes, then looks. She listens to her mother’s stories. “Most of Polina’s stories, if I could have articulated my own resistance to them, collapsed to anticlimax,” the narrator says. “There was a show of life, often glorious, reflecting somehow on Polina, and then the people just disappeared. Nothing ever added up to anything. All it ever came to was, ‘In the end …’”
What will the narrator’s story come to? We don’t know yet, but as we go with her, we marvel at her moments of truth. She doesn’t force her life into a single meaning; she loves it too much for that — as if she knows the only way to find her real-true life is to stop trying to find it. For a long time, she does what most of us do: she chooses what she thinks is sanity. Deep down, though, something else is rising, occasionally almost visible. Sometimes the recognition of this wildness terrifies her, and it should. From its undeniable truth, there is no going back.
Review by Richard Smith, clinical psychologist and author
Rebecca Kaiser Gibson’s The Promise of a Normal Life is beautifully written. This isn’t surprising, given that she’s published two stunningly lovely poetry collections—Opinel and Girl as Birch. Those two books and this novel form a triptych, with themes and images recurring throughout all three books.
The Promise of a Normal Life, of course, has the added feature of events narrated more or less in sequence, so the reader can’t help but piece together some cause-and-effect narrative. As a result, I found myself frightened on behalf of the narrator: she has such a distinctive, sensory-oriented, lyrical, almost mystical sensibility, and there’s no one who can help her know how to live with that and capitalize on its benefits. There are enormous pressures edging her toward some version of “normal life,” including historical and socioeconomic constraints, gender expectations, her family (especially her seemingly bruised and brittle mother), and the series of artfully drawn narcissistic men she meets. Nobody seems to grasp her as an individual, or even to grasp the basic concept of normal variation among human beings (without which any “help” usually turns into coercion). At moments it’s confusing—to the reader as well as to her—trying even to figure out what’s happening to her. Gibson also delineates fleeting episodes of dissociation, when the narrator realizes how arbitrary human ideas really are and how inchoate human experience really is. That terrifying experience is described economically and stunningly when the narrator reports the spatial disorientation she feels when looking at Matisse’s painting Red Studio.
Also—and this is important to state—some sections of the book are hilariously funny (and also touching). One standout is an acting improvisation when the narrator discovers her inner clown. You have to read it.
I found myself waiting in eerie suspense for the protagonist to find and use her own agency. That might be what was most disquieting about the novel—its depiction of how ill-prepared almost everybody is to comprehend their own distinctive temperaments and approaches to life and to understand how to manage their potential downsides and enjoy their potential upsides. I don’t think that task is anything new, and I think some families have always done a much better job of it than others (and some much worse). Gibson presents her protagonist’s fitful progress on that task with unusual delicacy. The ending isn’t triumphant or glorious, which would have rung false, but hopeful in a way I completely believed.