Since I loved Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group and liked The Groves of Academe, I couldn’t pass up this lovely hardcover edition of Birds of America that I found recently at a book sale.
It’s 1964 and Peter Levi, an American with an intellectual Italian father, a classical musician mother, and more than a few step parents, heads off to Paris to study for a year at the Sorbonne. Although student riots and the escalating Vietnam War form a part of the story they are by no means the focus of this fairly humorous but very thoughtful coming of age novel. One of the things I appreciated so much about this book is that it is a contemporary account. One doesn’t have to wonder whether or not the author got the historical details correct. Some of the details and message seem so familiar to me I had to keep reminding myself that it was published in 1965. This was especially the case when Peter predicts the legalization of pot and more or less describes the car sharing programs that are in so many cities today. Although in his formulation, use of the cars would be free.
As much as I loved Peter’s life in Paris, it was nothing compared to how I felt about his life in the US which makes up the first third of the book. He is an old soul and he loves New England and was old fashioned even for 1964. He is a nerd and more than a little OCD. In other words he is a character after my own heart, and indeed I felt a very strong connection to his weird ways.
I have trouble asking questions unless it is a forum for questions, then I can’t ask enough. But in the real world, either because I don’t want to disturb people or out of fear of embarrassment, my inclination is not to ask for help. Here is Peter’s take:
Except in the classroom and of people he already knew outside it, Peter loathed asking questions. When he was little, he could not bear to have his mother stop the car and call out to a native for directions. “They won’t know, Mother! Please go on!”
John and I talk about retiring in the northeast and would love the opportunity to pull out a map and choose a spot. After divorcing her second husband, Peter’s mother decides they should leave Berkeley, California and move east. She let’s Peter choose where they will live. A romantic notion for sure, but I am also charmed by their pre-internet research and the possibilities and pitfalls that entailed.
She got the state guidebook out of the college library and looked up Rocky Port; she found the name of a real-estate agent in a directory of realtors and sent off a letter with their specifications, asking about schools and transportation.
When they get to Rocky Port on the Massachusetts coast, they set out to live their idea of America–chock full of nostalgia, and full of so many of the things that make me want to transplant myself to a small town in New England.
She had her own notions of what was American, going back to her own childhood. Reading aloud to children in the evening, Fourth of July sparklers and fireworks, Easter-egg hunts, Christmas stockings with an orange in the toe, popcorn and cranberry chains on the Christmas tree, ducking for apples at Halloween, shadow pictures on he walls, lemonade, fresh cider, picnics, treasure hunts, anagrams, checkers, eggs goldenrod, home-made cakes, muffins, popovers, and corn breads, fortune-telling, sweet peas, butterfly nets, narcissus bulbs in pebbles, Trillium, Spring Beauty, arbutus, lady’s-slippers, cat’s cradles, swings, bicycles, wooden ice-cream freezers, fishing with angleworms, rowing, ice-skating, blueberrying, hymn-singing.
The move also compels his mother to abandon her interests in cooking international food to focus on the foods of America. Peter’s worries that a diet consisting solely of American food will quickly become monotonous are soon laid to rest.
They had pot roast and New England boiled dinner and fried chicken and lobsters and scallops and bluefish and mackerel and scalloped oysters and clam chowder…They had codfish cakes and corned beef hash and red flannel hash and chicken hash (three ways), spoon bread and hominy and Rhode Island johnnycake and country sausage with friend apple rings and Brown Betty and Indian pudding and pandowdy and apple pie and cranberry pie…The rules of the Rocky Port kitchen were that every recipe had to come out of Fannie Farmer, had to be made entirely at home from fresh–or dried or salted–ingredients, and had to be, insofar as possible, an invention of the New World. Pennsylvania Dutch dishes were permitted, but gnocchi, they sadly agreed, although in Fannie Farmer, did not get under the wire…A dish, his mother decided, did not have its citizenship papers if it had been cooked in America for less than a hundred years–discriminatory legislation, Peter commented.
In the days when foodies like Julia Child were just beginning to change how Americans approached food and ingredients, Peter and his mother scoured the town for old fashioned things like beanpots. They also found it surprisingly hard to come by fresh fish even in a fishing village.
Like the curmudgeon that he is, Peter believes that tourists should have to pass an entrance exam before being allowed to see certain things like the Sistine Chapel. This is exactly what I said when we went on safari in Kenya. I want tourist spots preserved for me. The rest of you should stay home. He also laments his mother’s choice of phonograph player. “Does it have to be stereo?” Even in the details Peter and I share a lot in common, both of us favoring “The trumpet shall sound” from Messiah for the solo trumpet part. I listened to that endlessly as kid.
Feeling that Peter was a kindred spirit and enjoying the description of his world was the icing on a very thoughtful and funny cake. I think it may even land a 10 out of 10 on my reading scale which would make it an all time favorite.
Good shout – great book!
His sounds wonderful – I loved The Group, and have her The Company She Keeps on my TBR. Am hoping that will be another keeper.
It's great to feel such a strong connection with a character in a novel because of parallels in personality like you do with Peter. I think the last one I felt that with was Damon Galgut's portrayal of EM Forster in his novel Arctic Summer – but only in certain ways – I'm not as prudish as he was and certainly not as good a writer.
I've only read The Group and always wanted to read more so this sounds like a must after your very high praise. Interesting how the current issues of the time she writes about ring so familiar in our present as well.
Would you trade being prudish to be able to write like Forster? A kind of Faustian bargain?