Morning News Tournament of Books
Nominee 2005 National Book Awards
Nominee National Book Critics Circle Awards
Synopses & Reviews
The extraordinary new novel from the acclaimed author of Bad Behavior
and Two Girls, Fat and Thin
is about flesh and spirit, vanity, mortality, and mortal affection. Set mostly in Paris and Manhattan in the desperately glittering 1980s, it has the timeless depth and moral power of a fairy tale.
As a teenager on the streets of San Francisco, Alison is discovered by a photographer and swept into the world of fashion-modeling in Paris and Rome. When her career crashes and a love affair ends disastrously, she moves to New York City to build a new life. There she meets Veronica an older wisecracking eccentric with her own ideas about style, a proofreader who comes to work with a personal "office kit" and a plaque that reads "Still Anal After All These Years." Improbably, the two women become friends. Their friendship will survive not only Alison's reentry into the seductive nocturnal realm of fashion, but also Veronica's terrible descent into the then-uncharted realm of AIDS. The memory of their friendship will continue to haunt Alison years later, when she, too, is aging and ill and is questioning the meaning of what she experienced and who she became during that time.
Masterfully layering time and space, thought and sensation, Mary Gaitskill dazzles the reader with psychological insight and a mystical sense of the soul's hurtling passage through the world. A novel unlike any other, Veronica is a tour de force about the fragility and mystery of human relationships, the failure of love, and love's abiding power. It shines on every page with depth of feeling and formal beauty.
"Imagine that Edie Sedgwick penned a roman à clef in her 50s, and that she discovered, in her ugly, diseased decrepitude, that celebrities and downtown loft spaces and skuzzy rich hangers-on were the nadir of existence. Imagine that she managed, in her own posttrauma-addled way, to convey a beautiful-ugly portrait of this life, and the life that followed that life, a life of cleaning offices and riding public buses, in a wincingly acute manner that allowed you not only to forgive the destructiveness in which her youthful self luxuriated but view it as a real human tragedy. This is the accomplishment of Veronica, or rather of Alison, who is the narrator and soul-wearied subject of Mary Gaitskill's second novel. Alison, who lived an Edie-ish life, has a face that is "broken, with age and pain coming through the cracks." Now in her 50s, she cleans her friend's toilet for money, she's sick with hepatitis and her "focus sometimes slips and goes funny";an apt description of her story's pleasing disorientation, a story which amounts to a nonchronological recounting of her "bright and scalding" past as she hikes feverishly up a hill. Alison's narration begins as a bracing account of her "gray present" from which she recalls her childhood and her years as a model in Paris and New York and the death of her friend Veronica from AIDS. A former inhabitant of a face-deep world, she cannot describe a person without first reducing his or her face to a single violent visual stroke ("his face was like lava turned into cold rock"). These descriptions;or dismissals;fail, on purpose, to render any character a visual flesh-and-blood presence; instead, Alison's way of seeing renders people distressingly naked. Of course no seasoned reader of Mary Gaitskill would expect a preeningly tragic book about the emotional pitfalls of modeling, and so where there might be an airbrushed homage to failing beauty or weepy nostalgia over formerly elastic body parts there are instead turds, sphincters, scars, wounds and other celebrated repugnancies. Gaitskill's style is gorgeously caustic and penetrating with a homing instinct toward the harrowing; her ability to capture abstract feelings and sensations with a precise and unexpected metaphor is a squirmy delight to encounter in such abundance. As the book progresses, Alison's gray present becomes subsumed by the scalding brightness of her past, until her sick and ugly self is all but obliterated from the pages; aside from the occasional reminder that Alison is climbing a hill, her sage hindsight collapses into the immediacy of her recollections, and Alison's shallow bohemian fixations again become her only story. The result is that her blunt honesty feels face, rather than soul, deep. It is hard to convey the tragedy of a girl in the prime of her beauty who savors the ugly way she experiences herself; it is more wrenching, and more in keeping with the gimlet-eyed clarity of the book's earlier pages, to convey the tragedy of the truly ugly woman, who once, despite her demurrals and insecurities, knew beauty. (Oct. 11) Heidi Julavits is the author of two novels, The Mineral Palace and The Effect of Living Backwards. She is a founding editor of the Believer
. Heidi Julavits, Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
(Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Beautiful, grotesque, graceful, and exceedingly well-executed. People write their whole lives in the hope of coming up with just one sentence that rises to the level of this book....It's a remarkable achievement." The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
"In Veronica, as ever, Gaitskill's brand of brainy lyricism, of acid shot through with grace, is unlike anyone else's. And it constitutes some of the most incisive fiction writing around." Meghan O'Rourke, The New York Times Book Review
"Gaitskill taps into a deeper vein of emotional force, and with vivid language and an absorbing architecture, she delivers her most affecting, sophisticated work to date." Boston Globe
"Beauty and ugliness do battle in Veronica, not only within the minds of its tormented characters but also on the page. Ms. Gaitskill writes so radiantly about violent self-loathing that the very incongruousness of her language has shocking power." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"Don't read this book for its disjointed plot, but for Mary Gaitskill's sensuous yet precise language and her tough portrait of a bygone age. (Grade: A-)" Entertainment Weekly
"[R]avishing....A gorgeous, articulate novel that is at once an unflinching meditation on degradation and a paean to deliverance." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] raw-nerves novel that is at once elegiac, funny, and life affirming." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Gaitskill's implacable refusal of sentimentality is her great strength no group hugs here, just baleful understanding." The Washington Post
"While the book occasionally gives off emotional sparks and affixes apt impressions to well-drawn scenes, its rehashed plot and herky-jerky structure are millstones around the reader's neck." Miami Herald
Alison and Veronica meet amid the nocturnal glamour of 1980s New York: One is a young model stumbling away from the wreck of her career, the other an eccentric middle-aged office temp. Over the next twenty years their friendship will encompass narcissism and tenderness, exploitation and self-sacrifice, love and mortality. Moving seamlessly from present and past, casting a fierce yet compassionate eye on two eras and their fixations, the result is a work of timeless depth and moral power.
About the Author
is most recently the author of Because They Wanted To
, which was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1998. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harpers Magazine, Esquire, The Best American Short Stories
(1993), and The O. Henry Prize Stories
(1998). Her story “Secretary” was the basis for the film of the same name. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she teaches creative writing at Syracuse University. She lives in New York.
Bad Behavior is available in paperback from Vintage Books.
Reading Group Guide
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST
National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist
A New York Times Book Review Best Book of the Year
“Gaitskill is enormously gifted. . . . Throughout the book are passages of plainly spectacular beauty. . . . [Veronica] constitutes some of the most incisive fiction writing around.” —The New York Times Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your groups discussion of Mary Gaitskills Veronica, which The New York Times Book Review hailed as “a masterly examination of the relationship between surface and self, culture and fashion, time and memory.”
1. What is the significance of the story Alisons mother told her about the wicked little girl when she was a child? In what ways does it function as a kind of parable, or prediction, of Alisons life?
2. Alisons narrative shifts between past and present, or rather between several layers of the past and the present. What effects does Mary Gaitskill create through this method of narration? In what ways does it mirror the way the mind and memory actually work?
3. What kind of relationship does Alison have with her parents and with her sisters? How do they view her modeling career?
4. Gaitskill often personifies music in Veronica: “music, lightly skipping in the main rooms, here bumbled from wall to wall like a ghost groaning in purgatory” [p. 133]; “Music fell out of windows, splattered on the ground, got up, and walked away” [p. 141]. Why does Gaitskill emphasize music throughout the novel? Why is music so important to Alison?
5. Alison dreams of being a poet. In what ways is her narrative—in terms of its language and emotional intensity—suffused with poetry?
6. Veronica tells Alison: “prettiness is always about pleasing people. When you stop being pretty, you dont have to do that anymore. I dont have to do that anymore. Its my show now” [p. 44]. How does Alisons beauty enslave her? In what ways is Veronica more free because she lacks such beauty?
7. How does Alisons experience as a model affect her—morally, emotionally, financially?
8. What does Alison mean when she says that she became a demon and “was saved by another demon, who looked on me with pity and so became human again. And because I pitied her in return, I was allowed to become human, too” [p. 256]? Why would such a mutual pity enable Alison and Veronica to regain their humanity? What is the source of this pity?
9. What does the novel suggest about the harsher reality beneath the surface glamour of the fashion industry? How do people treat each other in this world?
10. How does Alison fall from modeling in Paris to cleaning the photographers office in San Rafael? Is one job more demeaning than the other?
11. Why is Veronica so important to Alison? How and why does Alisons relationship to Veronica change over the course of the novel?
12. What does the novel reveal about the early days of AIDS? How do people react to Veronica when they learn she has AIDS?
13. Veronica is an exceptionally painful novel, filled with sickness, cruelty, suffering, and death, and yet it ends with Alison saying, “I will call my father and tell him I finally heard him. I will be full of gratitude and joy” [p. 257]. What has she finally heard? What is she grateful for? Why does she anticipate such joy?