Books on Tap met at Champion Brewing to discuss a classic southern gothic coming-of-age story, The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers. This book takes the solitary feeling of growing up to an extreme – Frankie, age 12, “belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world.” She is growing up with a non-traditional childhood for her time – 1945: crossing the color line, acting as a tomboy, sleeping in bed with her father. With her brother betrothed, opportunity strikes. She will be a member of the wedding and join in on the honeymoon and the rest of their life.
Why the wedding? One of our book club members with a much older sibling remembers being 12 years old herself when her own sister got married. She loved this book, crediting McCullers for capturing the splendor of a wedding viewed from a young person’s eye. We also discussed that Frankie inhabited a fantasy world, and the upcoming wedding would have been a welcome addition to her world because she had never seen a wedding. Due to the fact that she didn’t know what to expect, she could imagine the wedding any way she wanted.
Logan Schuyler Smith as John Henry, Roslyn Ruff as Berenice and Tavi Gevinson as Frankie on the Williamstown Theatre Festival production of ‘The Member of the Wedding.’ Photo: Carolyn Brown (The Berkshire Edge)
Carson McCullers was an empath, a people person, and lived and wrote against the grain. She wrote about spiritual isolation, misfits, outcasts, and in this work, “jails you cannot see.” Richard Wright said that McCullers was the first white novelist to write fully human black characters. This book, which centers on conversations held around a modest kitchen table, is about a young girl who wants to belong, but it’s also about a society that excludes people, and what happens when that exclusion happens. Belonging is tied to agency. Membership is power. Many readers in our group cited the conversations at the kitchen table about “wishes” for gender, race, and sexuality, as the crux of the book, and the book’s most important contribution to critical discussion. These characters discussed openly their wishes for identities that were fluid and flexible. We said, “people are loose but at the same time caught.”
Change is prominent in the book; Frankie even changes her name. Why is your name so important? Life accumulates around your name. Frankie is looking for change, but the end of the book seems to impart a message that change will come, most certainly, but it is not always good. While the ending might have been a sad one, one of the more heartwarming points of discussion was discussing Frankie’s admiration of her brother. She idolizes her brother, but what’s interesting is how much he, the much older brother, idolizes her as well. The relationship is mirrored.
Overall our impressions of the book were mixed. Some loved it, some could take it or leave it, some said it didn’t excite them, some said it was written in a more old-fashioned way, with more “telling” than “showing.” This reminds me that craft is a series of expectations. “Good” writing is writing that we have been conditioned, culturally and socially, to accept and applaud. Expectations are not universal; they are acquired tastes (Matthew Salesses, Literary Hub). They are cultural standards, and the more we read within a single genre, setting, or date of publication range, the more we reinforce the same expectations. Some felt these characters were incredibly full, even with the book having “not too many words” and being slow paced, more poetic. Others felt that the book was interesting but “didn’t hang together” (which feels reminiscent of the way that Frankie is described as “an unjoined person and hung around in doorways”). Stylistically, the book ends with a coda which acts like an epilogue. It is a narrative element that provides a conclusion to the story, and shows how Frankie‘s attitude changes significantly over the course of a single day. Again, this may feel strange for some readers, but it is a craft decision, although perhaps not used as much in our modern novels.
We will meet again on December 1 to discuss one such current novel: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig.
Other books mentioned:
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
January 5: The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian
February 2: The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
March 2: SAME PAGE! Book to be determined later.
April 6: Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight For Cumberland Island by Will Harlan
May 4: Remarkably Bright Creatures: A Novel by Shelby Van Pelt