The Late Interiors: A Life Under Construction
by Marjorie Sandor
Reviewed by Nancy Rommelmann
There's news from the halfway point, and Marjorie Sandor is here to tell us: it's not good. Friends will die of brain tumors, you will cheat on your husband and divorce, you will in your 40s still doubt your chops as a writer and developers may bulldoze the ancient elms that shade your bedroom window just so. But wait! There's also good news: you will marry your new love, your child's wisdom and grace will astound you, other friends will survive cancer and you will use all of it, as well as your obsession with your garden and its cyclical regeneration, as material and metaphor.
In The Late Interiors: A Life Under Construction, Sandor takes the quotidian of her life and tries to sow it into narrative. Her chosen form is that of journal entries from 2000 and 2001, accounts that include what her new husband dreamed the night before, letters to a planning board, uterine fibroids and where the cat likes to sleep. They are the ruminations of an educated, liberal, middle-aged woman, and as such are not without useful information. There is, for instance, a recipe for Vietnamese chicken broth, and reflections on authors that Sandor, who teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Oregon State University, admires. It may have been Sandor's intent to make readers feel as though they are sitting at a kitchen table with her, discussing the ebbs and flows of the universal life. But sentences that begin, "Come to think of it," "First of all," and "In other news" do not, to this reader, convey intimacy, but a laxity in construction.
The author of several books, including The Night Gardener, which won the 2000 Oregon Book Award for literary nonfiction, Sandor recognizes what the writer needs to do, and states as much by quoting author John Berger: "[W]ithout mystery, without curiosity and without the form imposed by partial answers, there can be no stories -- only confessions, communiques, memories and fragments of autobiographical fantasy." Most of the material in The Late Interiors consists of what comes after that dash.
There are grace notes, in particular Sandor's observations of climate and what it's meant to her life. In the book's finest section, "Capistrano Days," she wonders, "How could I have ever left Southern California? And for western Oregon, my god ... the Oregon winters and overheated classrooms of my new life have made me yearn for the salt air, the hot light of my childhood." That "hot light" really makes it sing. This chapter, too, is where Sandor turns reporter, writing an incisive, sly and subtle essay about nostalgia. She is supposed to be helping her aged mother pack up a house, but she simply does not want to take that next bend in the road, and so keeps her exasperated mother waiting while she detours to see the swallows return to Capistrano; this, though she knows the swallows have stopped returning to the eaves of the city's old mission churches. Instead, Sandor encounters a kitsch pageant that includes the book's most provocative image, that of "kindergartners in brown Franciscan habits ... their waists bound with rough rope belts."
Sandor tries, on the page, to come to terms with what most people fortunate enough to reach middle age will: to understand where one is on the continuum, what is within one's power to save and what must be let go. While she heads to the garden (and there is a great deal of gardening, a dozen trips to nurseries and three times as many into the soil behind her home) for succor and solace, for joy and distraction, we do not feel its grip; it does not sustain us.