In a series of autobiographically inspired vignettes, a novelist reimagines her mother’s life and revisits her own.
Most chapters of Crane’s fifth book (When The Messenger Is Hot, 2012, etc.) include sidebars in which narrator Betsy Crane (the author’s name) and her mom, opera singer Lois Crane (also real), debate the finer points of the project they have undertaken: telling the story of each other’s lives as best they can. “I think we should have more scenes together,” says Lois. “I’ve written some short stories about us before. I also might write a memoir someday. I didn’t want to overlap too much,” counters Betsy. “Some people might think this is a memoir,” her mother points out. While it’s definitely a novel, since both the real Lois Crane and the mother in the book are dead, the story bears a complicated relationship to nonfictional truth. Sometimes the two narrators seem to adhere closely to the facts, as in the first chapter, “Binghamton, 1961,” in which Lois tells the story of her daughter’s birth. Sometimes there are embellishments, filling in the blanks of the things mothers and daughter don’t know about each other, as in “To New Friends,” where Lois tells the story of how Betsy lost her virginity, or “The Rest of Your Life,” where Lois tells how Betsy got sober in AA, or several chapters called “Lois Dies,” where Lois tries to imagine her daughter’s life after she disappears from it. Sometimes the stories contain significant fantasy elements, as in “Betsy’s Wedding #2,” in which Betsy imagines Lois returned from the dead as one of the guests at a wedding she did not live to see, causing bitterness among the guests whose dead parents did not similarly reincarnate. In a section called “In Which We Go To Parsons Because It’s Not A Memoir,” the two are sisters, trying unsuccessfully to become clothing designers. In the commentary for this chapter, her mother says, “I don’t understand, why, Betsy, if you’re making all this up, it all has to be so hard.”
Her mother is right: one wishes this endearing stylist, reminiscent of Elizabeth Gilbert, would have done it the easy way. A memoir would have been just fine.