Archive for ‘suburbs’

June 27, 2011

the carousel

by Megan Abbott

A few months ago, I wrote a piece for a magazine about Forest Hills, my neighborhood in Queens.  In the first draft, though, I lost the thread and started writing about something else entirely—about Forest Hills, yes, but also my own hometown, and the way many of us move from place to place but, like the well-worn chestnut, “wherever you go, there you are.”

After moving to New York City16 years ago, I gave little conscious thought to my hometown, Grosse Pointe, Michigan. But, for reasons still unclear, I ended up setting my new book, The End of Everything, in a barely fictionalized version of Grosse Pointe. And, in talking about the book in recent weeks (a recipe for unbearable self-absorption!), I’ve had this puzzling new access to its continuing resonance for me. The way, for better and worse, it shaped me, and lingers with me.

Eventually, I scrapped that first draft and ended up writing about my favorite Queens wig shop (truly!). What appears below—none of it ended in the final piece other than a few phrases. But I guess I kind of wanted to put the piece somewhere because I wonder how many of us feel the same strange tug of our hometowns? And if we remain in them, does that tug become more about a past time rather than a place?

*                *                *

It’s a time machine. That’s what it is. Dusty afternoons, dew-struck mornings, I can jump on my bike, pedal a few blocks deeper into the heart ofForest Hills,Queens, and I am transported back. Many years later and a half a country away. I’m age ten again, with a ten year old’s wonder and restlessness, riding my ten-speed through the soundless streets of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, a time and place trapped in amber, tripped to life again here.

When I was 22 years old, I fled my serene suburban homestead with the desperate urgency of one exiting a burning building. Also the hometown of novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, who set Virgin Suicides here, Grosse Pointe is a place of lovely stasis. The historic home of auto barons, it remains seemingly untouched by the woes of the Motor City on whose back those barons built the magnificent Georgian and colonial homes that still strut along Lake St. Clair. A lake large enough to seem an ocean, its white Yacht Club tower seeming to pierce the sky.

It is a place once known, in ways staggering to my bored adolescent self, as the Paris of the Midwest. (Alas, my family lived near the freeway, the number of digits in our address the key social indicator—we were three digits away from the Lake, and therefore, three digits too far.)

courtesy of Grosse Pointe Historical Society

At age 22, I moved to my dream locale, New York City. The vision in my head was plucked straight from Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and I imagined eating Chinese food and watching Marx Brothers’s movies in bed with Woody, the cityscape glittering from our penthouse window. And it was (is) nearly as wondrous as I expected. I do not, often, find myself strolling the East River at dawn, the cityscape glowing miraculously in the background (and a penthouse does not lie in my future). But I do enough.

Six years ago, however, in need of more space, I found myself living in Forest Hills, Queens, a tidy neighborhood in an outerborough, famed as the former site, until 1977, of the United States Open, which took place at the West Side Tennis Club.

Situated a few blocks from Queens Boulevard, a thoroughfare of delicious tackiness—dollar stores, nail salons, wig shops—lies Forest Hills Gardens, the most exclusive part of Forest Hills proper. Designed in 1908 by Fredrick Olmstead, the landscape architect responsible for Central Park, the Gardens were patterned after a traditional English Village, in Tudor and Georgian style. Each house was built from standardized pre-cast “nailecrete” panels, fabricated off-site and lifted into place by crane—as if an elaborate dollhouse, model train set. Sometimes, it even feels as though it’s a stage set constructed precisely for me. To propel me back.

Two years ago, I bought a bike—my first in two decades. Riding under the heavy oak and hawthorn trees, I’ve come to know the Gardens well. The wrought iron streetlights, the exposed timbers and sloping gables of the homes, straight out of a fairytale.

Soon enough, riding past all these sights, I’m in Grosse Pointe again, its sugar maples and pin oaks draping above me. It’s the classic Freudian “uncanny”—utterly familiar yet marked by some element, some tiny thing, that renders it not. If I turn that corner ahead, maybe I’ll pass the Witts’s bright white house, or see the cherry blossoms carpeting Mrs. Wilson’s front lawn. Orl come upon my own gabled childhood home, which I haven’t set eyes on in 13 years.

Riding, there comes upon me that uncanny feeling that if I pedal far enough, in just the right way, I’ll find myself not only in Michigan but also 10 years old. that everything is the same. The one thing that’s not—the uncanny element—is me. Like dreaming your way back into your childhood, it’s the same, only different. Or you are. And that’s everything.

April 20, 2011

through the keyhole

by karolinawaclawiak

I came to know V.C. Andrews at a young age. Eight years old, actually.

My sister, five years older, was always a voracious reader. She brought Flowers in the Attic into our house clandestinely, from a friend. Or, perhaps she used her babysitting money to buy it at the grocery store from one of those spiral racks of paperbacks. I’m not sure.

All I know is that my sister treated the book like a secret and naturally I wanted in on it. I usually snuck into her room to read her diary and when I saw the book in its place, I knew it had to be something good.

The book’s keyhole cover was unlike anything I had ever seen. What was this ghostly girl’s face doing locked behind that attic window? Opening the front cover led to an even more shocking discovery. There were other ghost-faced children lurking behind the cover of the house. All in white, they looked dead to me. Powdery and frightened and beautiful. These were the four siblings, Cathy, Chris, Carrie and Cory, who spawned the Dollanganger series.

I was so enamored with the heroine Cathy that I used to sneak into my sister’s room and stare at her for hours. I wanted to be her, with her hair parted down the middle and perfect nose. I didn’t even want to open the book and read. The cover was enough.

The oldest brother, Chris, had a protective stare that made me fall for him immediately … years before I knew that Cathy had fallen for him too. I asked my mother to do my hair like little Carrie’s, pinned back on both sides with barrettes and she did without question. Cory looked like he could be my twin. I belonged with them. I was blonde too!

Flowers in the Attic was my first foray into the world of the Dollangangers and I didn’t even know V.C. Andrews’ version of their story until a few years later. I had constructed my own narrative for these children and let it play on a film reel in my mind day in and day out. They were mysterious while the other children in my suburban landscape seemed ordinary and without secrets. I wanted to live in a hush-hush world.

When Petals on the Wind arrived in my sister’s drawer a few weeks later I couldn’t take my eyes off it. This cover was even more sinister! A foreboding flower with crimson petals, three suspended in falling! What could it mean? And what of the two faces in the center of the petals, where the stigma and other reproductive organs of the flower should have been?

I stared at them and recognized her immediately. My Cathy. It had to be her. And Chris? He seemed older and worn. They both did. I hesitated to open the keyhole and then, when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I did. I was unprepared for what I saw. Satin ballerina dress. Satin robe. A corpse lying on a bed. Where was Cory? I wasn’t ready to think about it.

They were all colorless and gaunt. What happened? I took notice of how Chris held Cathy’s waist. He was mine, not hers. I felt a tinge of jealousy seeing their closeness and resigned myself to heartbreak in my own version of their story.

More books followed and in I snuck, bringing them into my closet with a tiny desk lamp, and locking myself in to daydream about this family and their secrets. If There Be Thorns with its prickly flower and little lost boy staring out at me. Seeds of Yesterday with another flaxen-haired girl looking at me with an attitude among scores of what I believed were grapes. Inside, Cathy and Chris were old, a new guard of terrifying children surrounding them.

photo courtesy of araik91

I devoured cover after cover until I decided to break the spell and read them myself. It was a different story than what I had constructed and my pre-teen brain couldn’t comprehend what I was reading. A mother starving her children? Incest? Torture?

I was too shy to ask my sister about any of it. What If I was misreading? I would implicate myself in some kind of perversion and have to spend longer hours in confession. I would finally have something more sinister to confess than the standard sin I had been using for years – being a liar. No one could find out about this. I couldn’t fathom that my sister had spent so much time reading these books and didn’t know what was going on inside of them. I looked at her with a new kind of suspicion. I looked at her like she knew everything and I was still a child.

I even went so far as to convince myself that the “V” in V.C. stood for Victor. It was incomprehensible to me that a woman could write such things. Could envision these things! I was always reaching for darkness but didn’t understand the true limitless nature of it until I read this series. It served as a kind of awakening for me. I never thought women could write this kind of violence, inhabit such darkness. We were supposed to nurture, not destroy.

I was wrong and thrilled to have learned that lesson early in life. “V” stood for Virginia and Virginia was fearless in her writing. She helped me embrace my darkness and channel my destructive tendencies onto the page. I can thank her for that now.

April 11, 2011

it could be you

by Megan Abbott


Recently, I wrote a piece for the Los Angles Times Magazine about what may be seen as the rise of the dark, complicated female protagonist in crime fiction (and film). Interviewing Gillian Flynn, whose novels Dark Places and Sharp Objects are prime examples, we began talking about made-for-TV movies from our youth. Wondering about the impact of these movies on writers around our age, Gillian noted in particular watching way too many “women-in-jeopardy stories: the woman who was stalked or attacked or abused.”

The influence of these movies is something Sara and I have discussed many times–especially powerful for us were the tales of teen hitchhikers and runaways and teen hitchhiker-runaways-turned-hookers (Sara, jump in here if I’m misremembering!). I also became pretty fixated on E!True Hollywood Story equivalent in the early 90s–especially the ones about porn stars (the best:  the truly sad tale of Savannah). In much the ways that Flowers in the Attic seems to have planted some dark seeds within our generation of women, these movies were somehow deeply resonant, perhaps in the way that True Confessions magazine may have been to a prior one.

By and large, these tales–at least the ones that seemed to have loomed large for many of us–speak to the price paid for transgression (disrespect for parents, selfishness, an inability to control their own impulses, or most of all poor taste in men) or, in the more old-fashioned strand, the inevitable price all women must pay, as their birthright (e.g., all women are at constant risk for being duped or hustled by bigamists, wifebeaters, pimps in disguise, married cads, embezzlers, con men–or all of the above).

But, gender issues, aside, one of the elements of these movies that stirred me so deeply was the powerful sense that violence and chaos can, or even will, unfurl in your own home. I was especially fixated on Fatal Vision, the superb 1984 miniseries about Jeffery MacDonald, the Green Beret captain and doctor accused of murdering his pregnant wife and two children, The Betty Broderick Story, which Gillian also cited, with Meredith Baxter Birney as the socialite accused of murdering her ex-husband and his new wife, Small Sacrifices, starring Farrah Fawcett as Diane Downs, accused of killing her children, and Adam, about the Adam Walsh kidnapping and murder, which seemed to traumatize a whole generation of children and parents and I Know My First Name Is Steven, another true-crime kidnapping tale, this one from the viewpoint of the kidnapped boy as he grows up with his captor.

There are countless more, but they all presented the suburban, middle-class home as not as the bland domestic space of yore, but as a powder keg. That violence could arise anywhere, at any time. It could find you there. It could even originate there. It could rise up within your own parents. Even you.

March 15, 2011

the half-closed box

by Megan Abbott

vc andrews

sketch by v.c. andrews (via simon & schuster)

Recently, I did something I probably haven’t done since I first signed up for Facebook: I actually looked at my profile. I’m guessing it was about two years old and the list of books I’d cited as my favorites so surprised me. Not because I don’t love all those books still but many of them seemed so remote to me now.

It struck me how “favorite books” are frequently a snapshot of yourself at a particular moment. Oh, right, that was when all I wanted to read about were gangsters and heists gone wrong. Or, Oh, yes, it had to be obscure British crime novels from just before the war. Or, ah, only stories about the struggles for meaning in midwestern towns.

Just returning now from a bookstore, scouring the shelves searching for compulsive airplane reading for an upcoming trip, I thought about this all some more. How returning to past books we loved are like tunnels into old selves, or parts of our selves that may be neglected (sometimes rightly so) or dormant, that may be gone forever. And sometimes, by returning to these books, we can return to those selves.

For instance, when I first fled–catapulted?–myself from the Michigan suburbs to move to my dream town, New York City, all I wanted to read was tales of suburban malaise–Rick Moody’s Ice Storm, A.M. Homes, Revolutionary Road. Now, more than 15 years free from the grosgrained handcuffs of my hometown ‘burb, Grosse Pointe, I no longer feel such a burning need to burn down that particular house.

Grosse Pointe

(My new book, The End of Everything, is my first set in the suburbs–one much like Grosse Pointe–and writing it let me recapture some of the magic and longing that had been there all along, but I had missed, or forgotten.)

Walking the aisles, I wondered about the me, age 27, who tore through Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, all 15,000 pages of it, and was enraptured. Often, I pull that book off the shelf and want to dip back in but something in me worries I couldn’t find myself in it, like wandering through an abandoned house.

But maybe I could. Two years ago, Sara and I wrote a piece about V.C. Andrews for The Believer, and returning to her dark, epicly perverse world after so many years, I could find pieces of myself spring back into place in alarming and exciting ways.

enchanted-castleThen, a few days ago, I saw some writer mention Edith Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle as a favorite book as a child. Now that I think of it, it’s like the gilt-edged, proper sister to Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews’ gothic tale of a pair of brothers and sisters locked in the family attic. Here’s Gore Vidal on the book:

There are those who consider The Enchanted Castle Nesbit’s best book. J. B.Priestley has made a good case for it, and there is something strange about the book which sets it off from the bright world of the early stories. Four children encounter magic in the gardens of a great deserted house. The mood is midnight. Statues of dinosaurs come alive in the moonlight, the gods of Olympus hold a revel, Pan’s song is heard. Then things go inexplicably wrong. The children decide to give a play. Wanting an audience, they create a number of creatures out of old clothes, pillows, brooms, umbrellas. To their horror, as the curtain falls, there is a ghastly applause. The creatures have come alive… Thwarted, they turn ugly. Finally, they are locked in a back room … It is the sort of nightmare that might have occurred to a highstrung child, perhaps to Nesbit herself.

Truthfully, I didn’t even know I remembered the book until suddenly I did. Like opening an old box (a locked room) and finding a childhood toy that was once your whole world and it slipped entirely from you. It made me want to read it again, with an awful longing.