This is one for the list of favorites this year.
The story unfolds in two voices, Leah and Jean, her stepmother. Jean was married to Leah’s father for nine years, until Leah turned ten. This is the story of the complicated Jean, told from her viewpoint and from what the grown Leah remembered of Jean and what she observed when they saw each other one more time. It begins with Leah recounting her trip to Jean’s house after hearing from a young man named Elliott that Jean had died and left Leah her sculptures.
Jean lived her whole life in a town in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania, a town that was dying by the time Jean was grown. When Jean began telling her story, she had retired from her job in the billing department of the hospital which had since closed. Her connection to her next door neighbor began when the mother asked if they could get water from her spigot after their water had been cut off.
In college Jean developed an interest in reading Artforum which she did for the rest of her life, often quoting Louise Bourgeois. Her own artistic work involved welding sheet metal scraps she was able to secure from her family’s scrapyard, having learned to weld from YouTube. She called the boxes she made and decorated her manglements.
By contrast Leah had become a translator and had lived abroad and was far removed from that desolate area and from her stepmother. She was proud of her happy, successful life. Jean found her joy in her art while she recognized the growing poverty of her region. She had contempt for her neighbors who watched the rise of the bigoted Donald Trump with pleasure.
She realized that Elliott, the son of the woman whose water had been cut off, could help her carry the heavy metal scraps into her house. She gave him food, let him take showers, and paid him for his work. Their connection became fraught and eventually his family was evicted though she could have afforded the money to keep them in the house. Jean spoke about contrasting beauty of her work and her ugly actions, and was comforted with more quotes from Louise Bourgeois.
The one visit that Leah and Jean had after Leah was grown reinforced the distance between them: on a hike the two women encountered Elliott with three druggy, menacing friends. Jean was so eager to see Elliott that she endangered Leah. The divide between their lives meant Leah didn’t see Jean’s artwork until after she died. When she did see it, she was taken with its strength and beauty and worked to have it recognized.
In her own words Jean is rough, smart, and reflective. She acknowledges her ugly impulses and shortcomings, while telling of the joy of creating art. She both defends her bad behavior and acknowledges how bad it is. What an amazing book this is. The reader for Jean gets it just right and brings this complicated person to life.
Idra Novey grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and besides writing novels, is a translator and a poet.
Idra Novey, Take What You Need, Viking, 2023, 256 pages (I listened to the audiobook).