Clarissa Burden, a writer in her thirties and married to a strange and mildly abusive South African man Iggy, lives as a bystander in her own life. She allows people to walk all over her, including the gorgeous women Iggy brings to the house to parade around nude while he photographs them (for art, of course), and she suffers from a terrible bout of writer’s block. Set during one hot summer day in the northern Florida town of Hope, Clarissa , through a series of unpredictable circumstances, takes a hard look at her life and finally learns how to fly.
At first How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly is a little strange. Written in a kind of stream-of-consciousness, the writing can be a little choppy and abrupt (or it could have been my 10 page at a time reading) but as the pieces of the story come together it was difficult not to fall in love with Clarissa and cheer her on with every self-discovery she made. This is my second Fowler novel (the other Before Women had Wings), and Fowler has a keen sense of characterisation. Clarissa is a woman that many can relate to–unsure of herself, unaware of the small abuses she puts up with, lost in her own self.
“For the last fourteen years, she had lived with an ordinary face: no underbite, no overbite, no buckteeth, nothing to prevent her from operating in the world as if she had every right to be treated with the same respect as any other person. On that hot solstice day–one that had already proven to be extraordinary for Clarissa–she gazed into Olga Villada’s unblemished mirror and realized that the person she was in her head was not the person whose reflection stared back at her” (177).
As I got further into the story I loved watching Clarissa discover how she truly was the beauty she saw staring back at her in the mirror and how she determined that despite the cruel words that came out of her husband’s mouth she did have worth.
I’d recommend this one to those who like character-driven novels, but also because there is so much that happens within the one day (or so) those who like more plot-driven novels would enjoy this one as well. Again, stylistically this one did take some getting used to and the lack of chapter breaks my own “here and there” reading a little difficult. The stream-of-consciousness can be distracting but I think it also helped portray how conflicted Clarissa was. In many ways this book actually reminded me of Mrs. Dalloway and as I was reading I wondered if Woolf might have been an influence on Fowler. In the end, though, I think you’ll find yourself applauding Clarissa and eager to see her learn to fly.
Big thanks to Connie May Fowler for sending me this book! How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly is available April 2, 2010.