This past week Katharine Smyth’s debut novel, All the Lives We Ever Lived, was released and we absolutely loved it. Here’s a review from Hillary Richard:
A stunningly beautiful story of love and death, told through the prism of Virginia Woolf’s life and writing. I am not typically a lover of literary criticism, but Smyth takes you inside To The Lighthouse with such a deft hand that you feel you have to read the book again because only now can you truly understand it. And her meditations on grief are nothing short of profound. She is an exquisite writer and this is an exquisite book.
An Excerpt from the Book –
When I think of “mother” (the word, the concept, the thing itself), I think of the scene in To the Lighthouse in which Rose and Jasper help Mrs. Ramsay pick her jewelry before dinner. Jasper presents her with an opal necklace, Rose with a gold necklace, and she holds the pieces up to her black dress, studying her shoulders in the mirror. “Choose, dearests, choose,” she says, hurrying them through further exploration, but she is also patient, “for this little ceremony of choosing jewels, which was gone through every night, was what Rose liked best, she knew.” As she finds herself wondering why Rose attaches such importance to the ritual—Rose whose mouth is too large, Rose who has a wonderful way with her hands—she is reminded of some ineffable emotion that she also possessed, “divining, through her own past, some deep, some buried, some quite speechless feeling that one had for one’s mother at Rose’s age.”
I too remember rifling through my mother’s jewelry as a child, sorting her rings and brooches into piles—she had quite a few opals, perhaps because she was Australian—and going through her closet too, where she kept a pair of red flowering sandals with mock-pearl stamens and a peach-and-gold embroidered dress that I conflated with her wedding dress. On the evenings she went out, I would linger in the warm, carpeted bathroom as she put on makeup; she stood at a vanity mirror lined with small round lightbulbs, applying perfume and brown eye shadow that I thought made her eyes look bruised—it was because I wasn’t used to it, she said. (One night as my father raged, I met her at this mirror and wrapped my arms around her knees; I told her she looked pretty, a received idea.) And because she always brought me back a treat, some dessert wrapped in a paper napkin, I could envision the parties that she went to, all black and gold and shimmering.
“How did I first become conscious of what was always there,” Virginia Woolf asks of her own mother’s “astonishing” beauty. “Perhaps I never became conscious of it; I think I accepted her beauty as the natural quality that a mother—she seemed typical, universal, yet our own in particular—had by virtue of being our mother.” That idea, that our mothers are by definition beautiful, must run deep in little girls; I made that assumption about my own before I even knew what beauty was. And yet I was much younger than Rose when I began to see my mother differently, and to see differently all I had mistaken for her glamour. Her perfume had yellowed with age, and the cheap foam applicators with which she daubed her eyelids were crumbling. She almost never went to parties, and her best clothes hung unworn in the closet, still carrying tags from Filene’s Basement. Aside from those opals and some silver rings, the jewelry I loved to organize was made of wood or plastic. She had never pierced her ears, and her wedding ring—there was no engagement ring—was a thin rose-gold band she had purchased herself on a lunch break in London. Later, when she began to put on weight, it would have to be snipped from her finger.
“We think back through our mothers if we are women,” Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own. She is reflecting upon the female novelists of the past, on how the lack of a feminine literary tradition must have exacted a colossal toll upon the work of women. But the sentence also conjures the buried, speechless feeling that Mrs. Ramsay holds for her own mother, and that Rose will one day hold for her—the long chain of motherhood by which all women have been shaped. “You ask how I learned how to fix diesel engines,” my father said once. “More to the point is how the hell did your mother learn to be a mother?” I can see the difficulty she faced in being unable to call upon her own experience of being mothered, and how her strengths as a parent were born in part of her resolve to be her mother’s opposite. I never felt perfect growing up, and I certainly don’t today, but I always felt she thought me perfect, which—and it’s a credit to her that this came as a surprise to me—cannot be said of all mothers and their daughters. Never would my mother have thought my mouth too large.
But for all this, I wanted beauty, I wanted glamour; I wanted a mother whom I could look to as a paradigm of the feminine as I myself became a woman. And when I first met Mrs. Ramsay at her dressing table, wearing her black gown and raising to her neck the most beautiful of stones, opals and amethysts, she seemed to me the perfect surrogate. Here at last was my model.
Watch an Interview With Katharine Smyth –
Katharine Smyth is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. After graduating magna cum laude from Brown University, she worked as an editorial assistant and researcher at The Paris Review and Radar Magazine. In 2010, she received her MFA in nonfiction from Columbia, where she was awarded a Dean’s Fellowship, the university’s highest merit-based award. Her essays and articles have appeared in Literary Hub, The Point, DuJour, and Domino, among other publications. In October 2014, her essay “Prey” was selected as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2014.