Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York by Gail Parent

Although I haven’t previously read most of the books we talk about here on the blog, it isn’t like I am exactly unfamiliar with the vast majority of them. Most of them I’d intended to read for quite a while, having heard a great deal about them, but just haven’t gotten around to it (BEFORE I read and talk about them). I mean, I knew about books like Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Mikhail Bulgakov‘s The Master and Margarita, and so on. However, I had never even heard of Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York before checking out The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. This one was a completely new territory for me.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Jennifer Weiner.)

Frankly, I ran across the title and immediately knew I had to read it. The description only further cemented my decision. The subject? A young woman, Sheila Levine, has reached the age of thirty while living in New York and, despite her most desperate efforts, has been unable to get married. As such, she decides to kill herself. Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York is her suicide note.

Now, before you think I’m really dark here, this alone wouldn’t have sparked my interest. But, when you combine the above with the all-important line from the description I read that this is perhaps the funniest suicide note ever written, well…that changes everything. That’s what caught my attention.

But, let’s have Sheila herself speak on the topic:

Yes, I am going to kill myself. When they find my body in my small, overpriced one-room apartment, it will be slumped over this suicide note. My father will read it and nod his head. My mother will take it to bed with her and read a little each night with a glass of warm milk, slowly massaging wrinkle cream on her hands and face. My sister will skim through, and my friends…my friends? No, no real friends. Sorry.

My name is (was?) Sheila Levine. Sheila Levine? People named Sheila Levine don’t go around killing themselves. Suicide is so un-Jewish.

I lived, when I lived, at 211 East Twenty-fourth Street, formerly of East Sixty-fifth Street, formerly of West Thirteenth Street, formerly of Franklin Square, Long Island, formerly of Washington Heights. Which means there are only about a hundred thousand other Jewish girls like me. Exactly like me, all with hair that has to be straightened, noses that have to be straightened, and all looking for husbands. ALL LOOKING FOR HUSBANDS. Well, girls, all you Jewish lovelies out there, good news! The competition will be less. Sheila Levine has given up the fight. She is going to die.

In short, Sheila is sick of it. She was conditioned from an early age to aspire only to getting married and having children. She goes to college and wants to get a ‘creative job,’ but other than dreams from the movies (that involve marriage), she doesn’t even really know what that is. Anyway, all the jobs out there for young women involve typing and nothing creative. So, she does anything she can to land guys and get married. Instead, all she gets is guys she isn’t even interested in. Worse, even they aren’t interested in marrying her. She’s sick of it all and she is going to kill herself.

Looking back at that description, I expect that I would have been bored to tears by this book…but I wasn’t. Sheila herself kept me raptly interested from first page to last. Sure, she’s bitching the whole time, but she’s hilarious:

            “So, Sheila, how was your date?”

            “Boring, awful, disgusting.”

            “Did he ask you out again?”

            “Yes. I really can’t stand him. He’s so repulsive to me. There’s something wrong with him. He’s too Jewish.”

            “He sounds very nice. When are you going to see him again?”

            “A week from Saturday[.]”

Here is another fun one:

            “I don’t know, Mom. I’ll be home the first chance I get. [She must have thought I was Baby Jane Holzer.] Listen, Mom, could I borrow the car on Saturday?”

            “Where are you going?” (Mom, for God’s sake, I’m thirty years old. Can’t I once borrow the car without telling you where I’m going?)

            “I’m going up to Connecticut to Bingo Memorials to pick out my gravestone.” (I didn’t say that.)

            I did say: “I’m going up to Connecticut with this boy I met a few weeks ago. He said he loves Connecticut and I said I love Connecticut, so we’re going up there just for the day.” (I knew by now exactly the right thing to say.)

            “Very nice. Why don’t the two of you come out here first and pick up the car?” (She wanted a look-see at my fictitious beau.)

            “He would love to come, Mom, but he can’t.”

            “Why not?”

            “Because he doesn’t really exist. I made him up.” (I didn’t say that either.)

Now, I do want to consider possible feminist themes in the book. After all, I would assume that they would be there in a book about a girl who is conditioned to want marriage and is going to kill herself when such is impossible. However, and you’ll have to read the book for this, marriage seems to be what Sheila really wants. Sure, she wishes at one point that a girl could be happy AND single, but Sheila never really wants anything but marriage. I just don’t think this book carries an extremely feminist message as whether or not Sheila was programmed on the ‘Mrs’ track, that’s all she really and most deeply desires.

All in all, for me, Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York is about Sheila. Sheila is bizarre, fun, and going to kill herself. Perhaps it makes me look a bit morbid, but all that fascinated me. I didn’t want Sheila to die, but I was thrilled to listen to her go on and on about it. I have a feeling other people will be as interested in Sheila as I was. There just aren’t a whole lot of books like Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York.

 

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Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools

Loving “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” as much as I do, I’ve been waiting anxiously for years to read Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools. Nothing was stopping me, mind you. I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I guess I hoped it was a novel-length work with the same kind of magic as “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” That probably wasn’t fair. In any event, though I liked the book and found it extremely well written, I just didn’t find that magic I was looking.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Patrick McGrath and 4th for Annie Proulx.)

Ship of Fools details the voyage of a motley assortment of people who are citizens different countries and members of different socioeconomic classes from Mexico to Germany shortly before the beginnings of the Second World War. However, for me, it seemed to mainly be a scathing indictment of humanity and our hopes.

I mean, everybody thinks they are better than everyone else. Of course, they aren’t. For example, an American artist named David Scott looks down on just about everyone:

He glanced at Mrs. Treadwell, whose attention had wandered. They were coming into the crowd entering the dining room, and she nodded lightly in several directions – to Freytag, who nodded back without smiling; to the young Cuban pair with their two children; to the bride and groom, who did smile; to the purser, who beamed at her with his broadest smirk; to anybody and everybody, David noticed, without appearing really to see anyone. She behaved in fact like Jenny, except that Jenny was looking for something, a response of some kind, almost any kind at all, always either a little too hard or too soft, with no standards that he could understand or believe in. An intense resentment against Jenny rose in him when he saw her at work trying to undermine him, to break down by any means his whole life of resistance to life itself – to whatever environment or human society he found himself in.

But, he’s just a grumpy and empty young man. He picks apart others, even the girl he supposedly loves (Jenny), but has no reason to feel superior beyond being able to intellectually negate whatever good qualities those people might have.

Really, though this novel is packed with an amazing amount of different characters of all kinds of different classes (German divorcees and widows, Swiss hotel keeper, Spanish dancers, a Jewish merchant of Catholic religious paraphernalia, deported laborers, Cuban medical students, a Swedish communist, and so on), they all come off pretty bad. They all look on everyone else as inferior to them, and then promptly display some horrifying trait.

For example, a number of the German passengers actually advocate getting rid of the Jews and the handicapped, even by extermination and sterilization, foreshadowing the horrors coming in the Second World War:

 

            “Every day I learn new things about him. Just to think he is a publisher. I had not known that!”

            “How fascinating,” murmured Mrs. Treadwell, from the depths of her pillow.

            “Yes, in Berlin. It is a new weekly devoted to the garment trade, but it has literary and intellectual features besides. One of these is called the New World of Tomorrow, and he engages the very best writers to contribute, all on one topic, to be examined from every point of view. The idea is this: if we can find some means to drive all Jews out of Germany, our national greatness will then assert itself and tomorrow we shall have a free world. Is that not marvelous?”

            Mrs. Treadwell deliberately kept silence.

And, though the Jewish merchant of Catholic paraphernalia is not so extreme in suggesting avenues for his hate, mostly trying to avoid people, he doesn’t seem to regard all these ‘goys’ as even people. He may not be as bad, but I don’t think that necessarily makes him better.

No, Porter seems to treat all of the people on the boat equally. They all have some nice features here and there, but they all are rotten. Every human is a wretched little thing that thinks it is better than everyone else.

To take this further than just the inherently flawed nature of humanity, Porter also has this voyage represent a hope for salvation for each of these flawed characters. The Swiss hotel keeper hopes to go back to Europe to open a hotel where business won’t be as corrupt as Mexico. A German oil company man hopes to retrieve his Jewish wife from the growing danger to Jews in Germany and take her somewhere where she (and thereby he) won’t be persecuted. Everyone hopes for something life-changing out of this voyage. However, we can guess from Porter’s treatment of her characters that these hopes aren’t going to be realized.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not denigrating Ship of Fools in any way. Though depressing, the indictment presented certainly seems accurate. Further, I cannot deny that this is an amazing book in the vast number of different characters that are all vividly and individually portrayed, the intricacy of the political situation represented, and the emotion connection the prose forms with the reader. It is really a marvelously and skillfully executed novel. However, it just didn’t have the same magic for me as “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” I didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped I would.