I’m still trying to decide what I think about “Veronica” by Mary Gaitskill. Without a doubt, Gaitskill is a perceptive craftswoman, but I’m not sure if I liked the story. Have you ever loved a book for the structure and writing even when the story was meh? Usually this is where great characters step in to save the day, but I don’t care about them either. Let’s go back.
Written in 2005, “Veronica” was a finalist for the National Book Award (lost to “Europe Central” by William T. Vollmann). The book is about Alison, a once hot fashion model, and her unlikely dead friend Veronica. It’s mostly set in NYC and Paris, but we begin in the unglamorous present as Alison walks to her gig washing windows on a rainy California day. In her 40s and struggling with hepatitis C, Alison copes with the pain and drudgery of her life by rifling through her past like turning pages in a diary.
The structure of the novel is hung on a day in the life of, but the majority of the book takes place in the 80s when Alison ran away from home and eventually started modeling. Fragments of memories piece together chronologically so it’s not about solving a puzzle. For me, I turned the pages because I wanted to know what happened to the pretty young girl who found herself on the path to fame and fortune before turning 20. But unless you skip chapter one (why would you do that?) you already know what happened. So the real dramatic question isn’t does Alison fall from her pedestal, but how.
Reading this book was kind of like getting talked into a corner by a lonely soul who suddenly has the urge to confide that she lived in an ugly bubble inside of a glitzy bubble filled with mean people, but you don’t really feel for her because she’s not so great herself. Accept sometimes she is because she had this one friend once who she showed kindness to, Veronica, who’s life had a tragic predictability to it that’s pretty frightening.
At the same time, there were pages and pages of this story that I wanted to tear out of the book and plaster to my window because they were so striking. There’s one passage early on in which Alison is thinking about a singer’s voice, imagining her:
…A sweet voice locked in a dark place, but focused entirely on the tiny strip of light coming under the door.
Later, while washing a window and thinking about what music does to you:
Then it was like somebody realized you could take the surface of a song, and walk through it. The door didn’t always lead someplace light and sweet. Sometimes where it led was dark and heavy.
The same could be said of how you read this book, super heavy to some and candy to others. It’s only in the present that Alison can look back and realize the extent of her pain, and how it kept her from getting close to people. She moves to LA because ‘there’s more joy there’, but if there is, Alison doesn’t seem to find it.
I kept wondering why the book was named after Veronica since it’s Alison’s story. Then something happens in the end and it’s clear. In a world of posers and men who only appreciated Alison for her looks, the friendship with Veronica was raw and real and gave her something to regret:
I want to know who she was, but I can’t because I didn’t look in time.
It’s a slow and dark story about two women who don’t love themselves enough, but they loved each other and that friendship made them human again. I’m glad I read it, but don’t ask me to read it again.