“On the Rocks; A Novella”
Author: Theodora Bishop
Publisher: Texas Review Press
Henry James, acknowledged by sophisticated readers of fiction as "The Master," wrote short stories and full-length, even length-y novels, of course, but waxed eloquent about the novella. This form, the "blessed and beautiful nouvelle,"—James liked Italian—he employed in works such as "The Aspern Papers," 98 pages, and "The Turn of Screw," 133 pages. He found this length a kind of Greek golden mean, long enough to cover the subject thoroughly but not a door-stopper. A novella could be read at one sitting by a late-nineteenth-century reader so as to maintain a unity of effect.
Theodora Bishop, a recent MFA graduate at the U of A, has published poems and short stories but "On the Rocks" is her debut full-length fiction, published by Texas Review Press, which champions the novella.
The story, 138 pages, is told by Eva Marino, a young woman in the seaside town of Ship Bottom who is moving over the verge of a nervous breakdown. She is in therapy with a counselor named Shiloh, although for months she remained mute. Eva has a wry, not to say sarcastic, yet injured attitude. She is reliable enough, not deceptive, but also clearly not well. Her narrative is part farce, part tragedy,
She had been working at the magazine "Eat Right!" where Eva gained an extensive readership for her column on kale. This was hard work for she found kale a "sucky vegetable " "Devising something to say about kale was like snatching at clouds. Clouds upon clouds of smelly kale heads.” She thought of it as "wild cabbage's dirty cousin."
But, the readers loved it, so when Eva, coming unglued, went to resign she was give three months off with pay. She was "the face of kale" and there were plans for articles on "Christmas Kale Salad!, Garlicky Kale Stuffed Chicken!, Meatball-Kale Minestrone!"
Eva's breakdown, her lessening ability to function, to get out of bed and stop binge-watching “Midsomer Murders,” seems to the reader well-earned.
Eva's father had died at 55 of a heart attack five years earlier. His face had been "precipitously pink" but Eva attributed the color to too much lobster. Eva and her mother, Leonora, mourned, but now Leonora, a genuinely eccentric and fascinating character, with Eva as maid of honor, is about to remarry Ted Turbine, the prosperous owner of a used car dealership "The Lemon Tree." To Eva, Turbine "resembled one of those dopey Pekinese that impulse moves altruistic chumps to raise."
What does Leonora expect? Just money? Does she love the owner of The Lemon Tree?
What does Ted Turbine expect? If he expects fidelity, he will be out of luck, because Leonora is irrepressible. She had, for years, an affair with their neighbor Finn. Did Leonora love her husband, Eva's dad?
Eva herself has, since childhood, loved Finn's son, Sebastian, who has recently drowned under mysterious circumstances.
Bishop's method here is to reveal small bits of the puzzle, to foreshadow, entice, and it works pretty well.
Mother and daughter move through the ritual of bridal shower, sessions at "Fountain of You Yoga," a retreat at Copperhead Spa and Resort, and the choosing of the wedding dress at Consignment Castle: the " bodice was ...odorous of antiperspirant."
By the conclusion, we know mostly what has happened. We do not know whether these two women will have a future.