Anne Roiphe has a way with words. When I read a sentence or paragraph that is particularly picturesque, I feel like I get double the pleasure out of it. First, for the words themselves, and second, in thinking about and admiring the kind of brain it takes to be able to craft words in such a vivid way. Anne Roiphe gave me many of those moments as I read An Imperfect Lens (a well-crafted title, in my opinion, that makes me think about the book from many different angles).
On page 38, she articulates the struggle with wild hair that I understand all too personally. She does so in a way, though, that makes it seem…I don’t know, makes me feel like, “Wild hair isn’t completely impossible and awful, if the words that describe it can be crafted and woven into a description that adds to such a powerful and beautiful and sad story.”
Este is one of the main characters in the book. Here is the author’s description of Este’s thick hair:
…if she didn’t tie it up with ribbons, it would turn wild in the slightest breeze and spring into a thicket of snarls, a a large bush that suggested wilderness and wind…
I can relate, but I certainly never thought of the wild hair battle as something that could be the inspiration for a beautiful sentence in a powerful story (which is probably why Anne Roiphe is a writer, and I am not!)
The other thing that struck me about this phrase is that it is part of what I think might be the longest sentence I have ever read in modern literature:
Her hair was black and thick, and if she didn’t tie it up with ribbons, it would turn wild in the slightest breeze and spring into a thicket of snarls, a large bush that suggested wilderness and wind and was hardly right for a woman who would live as other women lived with sheets and pillows, with dishes and goblets and tablecloths, with men who wanted to be near her and those who were afraid to be near her, so she brushed her hair, earnestly, energetically, and while she brushed she sang softly to herself, an Arabic song her nurse had taught her about a shepherd whose goat had wandered away.
I really enjoyed this story about the search to find the cure for cholera in Alexandria, Egypt. Well, enjoyed is not the best word. I was deeply moved by it? (Of course.) I really got into the story? I was fascinated by the story? Yes, that’s probably a more accurate way of saying it.
The story was also a bit unnerving, I must admit–reading it, as I was, while my four year old was sick with a mystery stomach virus and vomiting. I had no worries that she had cholera (and even if she did, I knew the hospital was very near where she could quickly re-hydrate and, therefore, survive), but, still, it made my own stomach a bit queasy and my heart quite sad to be thinking about people dying from germs they couldn’t see and from the dehydration caused by those germs, at the same time I was forcing liquids on my daughter to compensate for the fluids she was losing.
The day in and day out stories happening all around the devastation of cholera and the search for the cause made this a good read. Life is hard and unpredictable. But, life goes on. The author captured those dichotomies and wove them into a very interesting story.
She does not make too much of any one character, but rather gave me the feel that such diverse lives and circumstances were co-existing, and the things happening in each of those lives mattered, although they may not have been noticed or regarded much by others.
The book is not as intensely deep as I might have imagined a book about cholera to be. But I think that is part of its strength–it tells one part of the search for the cause of cholera in a way that doesn’t isolate it out from the bigger picture of life and death and love and friendship and betrayal and inanities that continue on and on (even if they take a different form or become more subdued), even when something as devastating as cholera is taking its toll.
Obviously I enjoyed this book. If you read the book and don’t like it, feel free to leave your critiques as a review on Amazon.com 🙂 You don’t need to argue with me about the flaws, because I’m not defending the book as great literature (a very subjective defense at the best of times). The bottom line for me is that I liked the book, and not that I’m trying to prove to anyone else that it is a must-read or profound piece of literature! In any case, even if the rest of the book had been a dud, I still would have been glad to come away with the description of Este’s hair, which will make me smile again, on the days when humidity gets the best of my hair 🙂 .