Wise Children is #173 on the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. See the whole list and my progress here. This summer, I’m reading from the list for my 20 Books of Summer challenge, and instead of straight reviews, I’m going to compare the 1,001 Books write-ups with my own impressions.
In a nice contrast with the first of these comparisons, I completely agree with 1,001 Books contributor Anna Foca that Wise Children is a “joyously exuberant unraveling of purity, legitimacy, and other cultural fantasies” and that it “gleefully documents the comic hybridizing forces of worlds colliding”. I honestly don’t know that I can put it better than that.
From the age of twelve, Nora Chance and twin sister Dora make a living on stage, then screen, and later, nude revues. At 75, she’s looking back on her life, from growing up with eccentric Grandma Chance, a boardinghouse landlady with a habit of taking in unwanted children, to dancing around (no pun intended) their biological family, the rich, titled, and celebrated Hazards. Shakespearean actor Melchior Hazard doesn’t acknowledge his twin daughters. He’s too busy playing King Lear (and marrying the actresses who play his daughters) while the girls dance in down-market Shakespearean adaptations called things like “What, You Will?” Melchior’s brother Perry tried to do right by the girls by claiming to be their father, leading to misunderstandings and drama. The occasion of Melchior’s 100th birthday, and a chance to confront their father once and for all, provides the novel’s frame.
Like the 1,001 Books write up says, there’s plenty of sharp commentary here about purity and legitimacy, as well as class, gender, sexuality, celebrity, and more. But you can just as easily enjoy this romp for the action (fast-paced doesn’t seem strong enough, there are more shocking turns of events than in your average soap opera) and the voice. Dora is one of those characters who will stick with you.
There’s a kind of style you can only acquire on the wrong side of the tracks and our grace was a scrawny, alley-cat grace, even if we thought that we were really something. We never say what other people saw. I would look at Nora, faithful as my looking glass, and see a suave sophisticate with geranium lips and that faux-naive Dutch doll hairdo which had become our trademark. Yet when I flick back through Grandma’s scrapbooks, the pictures I see are of a couple of street urchins decked up like Christmas trees in all kinds of risky, frisky, flighty, unbecoming gladrags that they wear as if it were a joke.
If I was to criticize one thing about Wise Children, it would be its brevity. We get just the outlines of the Chance family, and the younger generations of the Hazards. We skip over much of the 50s, 60s, and 70s in just a few paragraphs. A novel so besotted with Shakespeare would take “brevity is the soul of wit” seriously.
P.S. I may not have explained my summer project well enough, assuming that all of you are as wrapped up in a reading list from the mid-aughts as I am. So: the “1,001 Books” aka “1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” is a list, as well as a physical book. A few books, in fact, as there have been three editions. I have the original 2006 edition. My #20BooksofSummer21 goal is to read 10 books from the list, bumping me up to 150 read in total. My posts will be responses to the 1,001 Books write-ups rather than traditional reviews (because these books hardly need reviews!)
Check out the back cover copy: “a bold and bright reference” of “books which have had impact.” Also check out that price tag; I paid $47 for this thing in 2007!