A New Yorker writer examines the arc of her life in the reflection of George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
This subgenre—examining personal history through the echoes of a singular work of art—can be riddled with land mines. When it works well—e.g., Alan Light’s The Holy and the Broken (2012)—the results can be marvelous. Obviously fleshed out from her New Yorker article “Middlemarch and Me,” Mead (One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, 2007) could have simply written a dense biography of Mary Ann Evans, who would go on to write some of the most enduring novels of the Victorian era under her pen name. In fact, Mead was wise not to omit herself from this story, as her feelings about the great work and its themes of women’s roles, relationships and self-delusion are far more insightful than a barrage of facts would have been. Mead discovered the book at 17, a critical time when the character of Dorothea Brooke, the aspirational protagonist forced to subjugate her dreams, truly spoke to her. In some ways, it’s easy to see how Mead’s life has paralleled these fictional characters she so admires, even as she repeats some of the same mistakes. It’s difficult not to admire the sense of wonder that she continues to find in the pages of a novel more than a century old. “It demands that we enter into the perspective of other struggling, erring humans—and recognize that we, too, will sometimes be struggling, and may sometimes be erring, even when we are at our most arrogant and confident,” Mead writes. “And this is why every time I go back to the novel I feel that—while I might live a century without knowing as much as just a handful of its pages suggest—I may hope to be enlarged by each revisiting.”
A rare and remarkable fusion of techniques that draws two women together across time and space.