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A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl

Review

A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl

Jean Thompson, the gifted writer of the National Book Award finalist WHO DO YOU LOVE, takes an unblinking look at the lives of three women --- Evelyn, a grandmother at the end of her life; Laura, her fifty-something daughter; and Grace, Laura’s adult, somewhat aimless daughter. The novel asks (and answers) the eternal question: “What were you allowed to expect from life anyway? Not much. Nothing, when you came right down to it. That did not keep you from wanting all of it.” And it is that pursuit that Thompson chronicles so cogently in her latest effort.

A CLOUD IN THE SHAPE OF A GIRL opens with Laura caring for her dying mother in the old family home, while also trying to keep her own family --- husband Gabe, daughter Grace and son Michael --- in her Midwestern university town. The story stretches back to the 1940s, when young Evelyn was starting her adult life in academia: “She decided to work toward a doctorate and persuaded one of the faculty to be her dissertation director. ‘I don’t understand why you want to get the PhD,’ he told her. ‘You’re not at all bad looking.’”

"Thompson brings the novel to its shocking conclusion with a precision and poignancy that will stay with you long after you finish the last page."

After a brief, bungled affair, Evelyn begins dating stable Andrew, an attorney and law professor at the university. It wasn’t a whirlwind romance. Evelyn was perhaps too smart for that, despite her young age. She quickly realized that marriage would be work: “She would make an effort. He would make an effort. There would be arguments over who was making the greater effort. The children helped, when they finally came. She had not been unfortunate. She had enjoyed many advantages and comforts.” But like most women of her era, marriage proved the ultimate compromise: “Over time, her discontents became familiar and lost some of their sharp edge.”

Laura lives a life not too unlike her mother. Married to Gabe, she also has a son and daughter, and wrestles with her own dissatisfaction: “The daughter was no longer young herself. A year or two past fifty. Her own children now grown. When your parents died, you lost your childhood, or at least the best witnesses to it. More and more she had difficulty not just remembering herself as a child --- that girl with the dark bangs cut straight across her forehead, standing crookedly in all the pictures --- but believing that she had been such a child, had not always been a fully formed adult, with opinions and a credit rating and a hundred distracted thoughts.” It’s observations like this that demonstrate what a master wordsmith Thompson truly is.

Laura is at that point in life when her children are technically adults, although each has his or her own struggles (Michael, with addiction; Grace, with a sort of resentful aimlessness). She’s caring for Evelyn in her final days, as well as dealing with Gabe’s needs: “Most marriages had their share of bad spells, or of just bumping along. Laura knew that now. Knew that most people stayed married in spite of the unhappy parts. They hung on and waited for things to get better, or they walled themselves off from each other, or built their enmity for each other into a sold and enduring structure.”

How can you carve out a space for yourself within all this activity? “Because what were older women meant to do with themselves, besides prop up everybody else’s lives and drink too much wine at book club meetings? No one, Laura was convinced, was as invisible and as easily dismissed as the tribe of women like herself, with short gray hair and glasses.” Laura acknowledges that she “lived my life sandwiched between two angry women” and that in Grace “….there was a deep current of dissatisfaction that Laura recognized and wished she did not.” But she also realizes that you can’t reduce either woman down to just her anger and dissatisfaction. Each was much more complicated than that.

Thompson tells this story from the alternating points of view of each woman, judiciously revealing the societal ties that bind them, as well as how each reflects on her journey. Evelyn bristles under the restraints of the 1940s and ’50s. Laura attempts to forge her own path, but soon realizes how close it is to her mother’s. Despite the freedom and opportunities Grace’s generation enjoys, she still finds herself imbued with an aggrieved dissatisfaction. Thompson brings the novel to its shocking conclusion with a precision and poignancy that will stay with you long after you finish the last page.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on October 25, 2018

A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl
by Jean Thompson

  • Publication Date: October 23, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1501194364
  • ISBN-13: 9781501194368