Rousseau's Garden

by Ann Charney
206 pages,
ISBN: 1550651463

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A Study of Surfaces
by Olga Stein

Towards the end of Rousseau's Garden, an exhibit of photographs, taken by Claire Symons, the novel's protagonist, of the grounds of an old chateau outside of Paris, draws appreciative comments from the onlookers. The owner of the chateau begins to comment, "Everything appears as it is, quite ordinary at first glance..." Another member of this audience adds, "The camera is a fluid way of encountering that other reality, a way of seeing what we ourselves perceive only as shadowy sentiments..." It is through this same sly, distant yet all seeing 'camera' eye¨of a detached third-person narrator¨that author Ann Charney relates Claire's story.

The story itself, at the heart of which is an unexplained tragedy, is easy to follow. Claire Symons, thirty-seven years old, is a professional photographer who has accompanied her art-historian husband, Adrian, to France in order to find out the root cause of her suddenly-acquired anxiety disorder. Her now-deceased mother, Dolly, too had become ill while Claire had been a child. Claire is convinced that her own condition is no mere coincidence.

When Claire was thirteen, Dolly, a talented sculptor, received a grant enabling her to work for a year in Paris. She had returned to her home in Montreal a changed woman, distracted and unable to work. Several months after that Dolly died in a car accident. Now in Paris, Claire is determined to discover whether her mother's mysterious transformation was caused by a traumatic event or whether genetic factors played a part in Dolly's depression. Frightened of the possibility that she herself may be genetically doomed to a similar fate, Claire begins to delve into her mother's past.

Eventually, the mystery of Dolly's illness is solved. Claire learns something unexpected about her mother's personal life, gains insight, through the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, into what influenced Dolly as an artist, and comes to understand her own self, the reasons for her anxieties and for her life-long ambivalence towards Dolly, whom Claire remembers as being more dedicated to art than motherhood.

Rousseau's Garden has a strong 'visual' component. Charney borrows from European cinematic tradition, wherein the portrayal of nature, its sights and sounds, its beauty, and its particular effect on the psyche are recurring elements. Rousseau's Garden is replete with superbly-wrought images of nature, gardens, and the French countryside where Claire and her companions often meet to stroll and spend time with one another. Interestingly, the characters in the story are as much objects of quiet study and contemplation as the natural world. The narrator remains dispassionate, more intent on showing the reader what's happening to a character from the outside than from the inside.

The narrator may seem distant, but Charney has cleverly drawn a woman easily recognized by the reader. Claire is endowed with an artistic sensibility. She is a talented photographer, but she is, as Charney intended her to be, an ordinary woman. She is no operator, no adulteress, no psychotic. Nor is she in any way 'damaged goods' with some peculiar proclivity for hurting those around her. Subconsciously, Claire is driven by all that which commonly drives other women, and she acts very much the way other women do: She fears the passage of time and the attendant loss of fecundity. Upon finding out she's pregnant, she instantly shifts her loyalty from husband, despite being aware of his unwillingness to have children, to the infant developing inside her, happily adjusting to her new condition, eager to experience motherhood. She's insecure about her relationship with her husband and is not above petty jealousy when it comes to Marcel, a colleague of Adrian's, who demands and frequently gets her husband's time. Claire uses her girlfriend ZoT's marriage as a 'gauge' for her own. And she can be be self-indulgent; resenting what she perceives to be her husband's inattentiveness to her during an outing with friends, she imagines the voice of Rousseau assuring her that her sense of neglect is justified and that her husband is "a fool" for ignoring her.

The narrator doesn't fail to bridge that emotional gap between the reader and the book's central character by showing too little. On the contrary, despite the reserve, the reader is drawn to Claire because her experiences are at once ordinary and meaningful. An example of this, wonderfully and powerfully realized, is the moment Claire grasps that she's pregnant. Charney has turned the reader, again in line with cinematic practice, into an observer who is shown only the outermost layers, only the surface of things. And here's where Rousseau's Garden truly succeeds: For properly handled, an assemblage of 'surfaces' can be profoundly revealing, subtly disclosing that 'other reality'. This quiet, slow-paced novel is a study of 'living', of deeply-felt moments and of life-altering experiences, but shown only from a respectful distance, and betraying intensity only when one makes the effort to see and to acknowledge just how much of the novel's drama is as as familiar and telling as the experiences which comprise one's own life. This is a garden of a novel. Stroll through it with eyes open. ˛


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