Sunday, April 27, 2014

Why I love love love Wickett's Remedy by Myla Goldberg (especially the audiobook)

When it was fairly new, my book group read Bee Season by Myla Goldberg. I liked it very much, and I think most of the other members of the group felt the same way. I had purchased the book, and I still have it. Of course, it was a bestseller, and was eventually adapted into a movie (which I never did see -- by then we had kids and less free time).

Around the time when her follow-up, Wickett's Remedy, was published, Myla Goldberg was at a book event -- might have been Book Expo America, but I'm not sure -- and she gave a talk about some of the research she had done for the new book. (I watched this talk on television -- specifically, on Book TV.) She mentioned spending time in the reading room of New York Public Library, and requesting some World War I-era newspapers from the closed stacks. She talked about the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. Her enthusiasm for her subjects, and for library research, made me like her even more than I'd liked her first book.

In 2007, I came across the audiobook of Wickett's Remedy at the library, and checked it out. I was interested to hear the story, but doubly intrigued when I saw that Myla Goldberg was narrating it. Many authors are NOT great narrators, but having seen that talk on Book TV, I thought Goldberg might pull it off. She did not disappoint, and I fell in love with this novel. I even have it in my Favorites collection on LibraryThing.

The reviews were mixed for this book. Part of this has got to be because Bee Season was such a hit, and it would be hard for the next book to live up to that. (All this talk about Donna Tartt, who just won the Pulitzer for heaven's sake for The Goldfinch, her third novel, and how much people still love her debut, The Secret History, after all these years, and all they say about the second novel is, "Oh, she did have The Little Friend in between, but that wasn't as well-received." So a bit of sophomore slump is fairly common. Okay, sorry for the long aside.) But also, readers who were expecting something in the same vein as Bee Season were in for a bit of a shock. While the first book is contemporary, the second is set in Boston during the 1910s, and the largest part of the story is set around 1917 and 1918, with the backdrop of America's entrance into World War I, and the Spanish influenza epidemic. Bee Season, as I recall, has a fairly traditional, mostly linear narrative, while Wickett's is a patchwork of voices and formats.

People who like mixed formats and somewhat experimental fiction, along with multiple narratives and timelines, should really try Wickett's. The main story is about Lydia Kilkenny, a young woman from an Irish Catholic South Boston family who works in a department store, meets and marries a medical student named Henry Wickett, then helps him to develop a "remedy" to ease people's minor ills. The secondary storyline is about a man named Quentin Driscoll and his "QD Soda," a product and company launched around 1918. These parts of the story are primarily told through excerpts from a newsletter, the "QDISPATCH" or "QD Dispatch," dated in the early 1990s. (Some of the QD stuff is maybe longer than it needs to be, but I found it mostly entertaining. And think about branding, brand loyalty, and consumer culture as it is today, and the QD Soda Company doesn't seem like a big stretch.)

The book also includes articles and letters from newspapers, many of which are taken directly from newspapers of that period. (In the audio, the news articles are accompanied by the clacking of typewriter keys.) While we spend much of the book very close to Lydia, the news clippings add a sense of the epidemic's scope, its terrible impact beyond the Boston of the novel. The Quentin Driscoll storyline also includes some correspondence: letters from an elderly man to his son, and from the management of a nursing facility to Ralph Finnister, the CEO of QD Soda in the 1990s.

Finally, there are the voices of those who have passed on, speaking from beyond the grave, giving further perspectives on the main action of the novel. So, while Lydia’s story is the largest part of the novel, and it’s written in typical third-person, linear fashion, it’s surrounded by notes in the margins, where these other people are adding their two cents to the narrative. I would guess this is the most disorienting part of reading the print version of the book, and it could have been frustrating to me as well. It might be difficult to know exactly where to “insert” the additional comments so that they fit into the flow of the story. Because I listened to the audio version, I didn’t have to make those decisions, it was all just read to me. Moreover, they are narrated by other people, not by Myla Goldberg, so it’s always clear that it’s an aside from a voice beyond, a sidestep from the main story. The CD’s box says, “Read by the Author, with David Aaron Baker, Chris Burns, Ilyana Kadushin and Stina Nielsen.”

The additional narrators and occasional sound effects help to bring the action to life. Goldberg’s lively delivery makes her a great companion as you follow Lydia’s journey from home to marriage, through grief, to the discovery of her true calling, and toward renewed hope. Wickett's Remedy has a sense of immediacy that brought me into Lydia’s life, and inside the influenza epidemic, and quite simply touched my heart. I wish more readers, and audiobook fans, might give it a try, and some of them fall in love with it as I did.