take what you need
By Idra Novey
Viking: 256 pages, $28
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It was Pliny the Elder who told us: “Home is where the heart is”. Maybe he never had to know what it’s like when home is where your heart was broken, or where the people you left behind are now the people who scare you.
In his elegiac and haunting new novel, “take what you need”, Idra Novey explores the anxious ambivalence provoked by such visits home from two perspectives: Leah and her stepmother, Jean.
Novey is a poet and translator. His 2018 novel, “Those Who Knew,” in which a politician’s rise to power is threatened by a past encounter with a woman, appeared amid Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. He made his novel timely, but what made it stand out was Novey’s sensitivity and nuanced understanding of what’s at stake. Tracking him is even better. It’s also timely in his own way, a counterbalance to certain Appalachian narratives that strip their characters’ lives of joy and meaning while whitewashing the stains of racism and class warfare. His real issue is what it means to love and what you’re willing to put up with, even if it means being separated from home.
“Take What You Need” opens as Leah, accompanied by her Peruvian husband, Gerardo, and their son, travels back home for Jean’s funeral. One of her memories is of the fairy tales Jean read to her, which become portals to the alienation and loneliness Leah felt when her birth mother died.
Fairy tales tell us that stepmothers are evil creatures, incapable of maternal love and care. “I hear…the pleasure rise in her voice as she reads,” Leah recalls, “pausing to insist that she wasn’t like the stepmother in ‘Snow White,’ that she didn’t crave my liver or my lungs.” Instead, Jean would say, “All I want is to nibble on your heart.” Lea surrenders her heart to be consumed.
Years later, Leah does not read fairy tales to her son. “Ella felt like a neat and necessary spinoff,” she explains, “putting Jean and the muddled appetites for those old tales aside. I’m already fumbling enough, wandering motherless towards motherhood.
Leah is lost in these thoughts, but when the family stops for gas shortly before they arrive, the threat of going home makes her even more uneasy. At the gas station, wildly waving flags with familiar political slogans divert her attention from Jean. She is approached by a woman angry that Leah is speaking Spanish with her family. The moment of her infuriates and terrifies her, conjuring the “madness of heartbreak” and interrupting the grieving process.
Novey alternates chapters in which readers hear the voices of Leah and Jean. As Leah nears home, the author draws our attention to the ways in which the American flag, a symbol of e pluribus unum, has been weaponized, making it clear that Leah and her family are no longer welcome. She, but she must return to fix her stepmother’s affairs.
Jean also once dreamed of running away from home. She longed to go to New York, to live and work among other artists. The daughter of a welder who rejected her suggestions for her work as too “girly,” she eventually became a sculptor. Obsessed with figures like Louise Bourgeois, she has hidden her Judaism from most of her neighbors, acknowledging that her bigotry could easily backfire on her. But instead of seeing the townspeople as a threat, she feels sorry for them, especially the young ones.
“We had too many men ticking all over town, more than at any time in my life,” he thinks, “their stillness felt almost like a cult, all of them hunched over, praying to nothing, and the rest of us driving around. , looking at them with sadness and fear.”
One of those young men becomes her assistant, helping her with the heavy pieces of metal that she stacks into towers and turns into art. Jean is a superbly written character, clearly burning with artistic desire. But her need for companionship leads to further alienation from her and Leah’s community.
Leah doesn’t share her stepmother’s pity for those who remain in her hometown; she only feels alarm. She scolds herself for the way her body stiffens when she sees young men wearing camouflage and staring at her family for too long.
When Leah and Jean perceive a terrifying incident in ways that speak to completely different worldviews, it reveals what cannot be ignored. Mothers are supposed to provide security, and Jean leaves Leah dangerously vulnerable. A confrontation breaks family ties.
Now we come to timing, and Novey’s ability to stay on topic without being too direct. The rise of fascism and racism of the Trump years (and beyond) exposed stark divisions at American dining tables. Many articles advised us on how to spend Thanksgiving with family members who have embraced conspiracy theories or cruelty.
Some asked where the red line might be: Should we refuse to meet with the unvaccinated? Do you insist on removing the offending yard signs? Others wrote that family love must transcend politics, that public discourse can stop at the threshold. But such arguments presupposed versions of fairytale families, in which a child’s sexual identity or religious affiliation never leads to exile. In many families of origin, children had to choose between escaping and erasing.
Leah, who ran away to go to college and eventually do research in South America, has come home with real interests in these divisions. The intolerance that persists among people who have been excluded from the American dream manifests as potential physical harm to their loved ones. And she then she is faced with a choice that has become all too common. Is our utmost loyalty to the family we grew up in? Or is it the one we choose to do, through marriage or friendship or the communities in which we choose to live?
The best fiction can explore such dilemmas in more meaningful ways than a thousand think pieces. Rather than present this choice as an empty intellectual exercise in “tolerance,” Novey takes readers to the limbic level, that instinctive place of emotions and stress hormones. She plumbs the tender wound that turned septic in the 2020s. If tolerance requires sacrifice, what are we willing to give up—or betray—to embrace the fairy tale of unity in family or country?
Berry writes for a series of posts and tweets. @BerryFLW.