While I was traveling, my review of Carol Gilligan’s first novel appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 24, and a shorter version in the Miami Herald on January 27. I’ve included the text of the Chronicle review below, detailing this unexpected, thinking-person’s love story.
Kyra: A Novel
By Carol Gilligan
Random House; 239 pages; $24.95
Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Love stories can often become mired in mawkish plots and prose, which is perhaps why pioneering psychologist and gender theorist Carol Gilligan turned to the classic doomed love paradigm of Dido and Aeneas for her first novel, Kyra, a contemporary romance narrated from Dido’s point of view. But Gilligan also draws on her extensive scholarship to explore 20th century European tumult, modern architecture and therapeutic theory, as well as examine how seemingly irrational behavior can occur in love relationships between rational people.
Divided into three parts, Gilligan’s novel is set in Cambridge, Mass., in the mid-1980s, where the narrator, Kyra, is an architecture professor, as well as Vienna, England, the Elizabeth Islands, and an island off Wales. The characters drift from one life event to another, suffering loss and resisting intimacy while paradoxically struggling to experience real connection with others.
Kyra is not a queen as Dido was, but she is building an experimental city on a privately owned island. She has also been marinating in numbness for the 10 years since the murder of her husband by her half brother. She lives with her older sister, Anna, a therapist who has become philosophically estranged from her work and from men—much like Kyra, although for different reasons. And then there is Andreas, the book’s Aeneas, a charming, seductive character who is directing a dynamic version of Tosca and mourning the loss of his wife who disappeared in Hungary three years prior and is presumed dead. His affair with Kyra ends badly.
Though this premise is delivered unceremoniously through characters’ matter of fact statements, in general Gilligan’s narrative is full of entrancing, hypnotic prose, sharp observations, and both terse and elongated sentences. Many events are delivered with the pace of dreams and the simultaneous richness and sheerness that haunting memories often embody: “Mid-morning sun flooded the car. I unzipped my coat, Andreas holding it as I freed my arms from its sleeves. A strand of hair fell across my face. I pushed it back; I felt him watching me. And then we were there.”
As she battles her emotions for clarity, combing the memories of her affair with Andreas for answers, the descriptions of the past are often vague, overpowered by metaphor. At the same time, the chronology of events moves repeatedly forward and then back, mirroring Kyra’s inner disorder and aligning readers with her concerns. It is this close proximity to Kyra’s inner life that is the novel’s most striking achievement.
Yet the book doesn’t escape its share of awkward moments. Some, such as the places where Gilligan consistently awards too much attention to detailing Kyra’s dreams, are easily bypassed, while others are more difficult to ignore, such as Gilligan denying the reader access to Kyra’s experience during her transformative trip to Thailand. And because Gilligan creates such a flawed but likeable character whom one wants to support and understand, when she nearly abandons Kyra’s voice and point of view in the final section of the novel, it is a considerable disappointment.
Also problematic is the marked presence of psychology in the book, which, though not unexpected given Gilligan’s background, is at times unjustified. Some discussions between Kyra and Anna about the workings of therapy seem unlikely, given the close nature of their relationship and Anna’s longstanding work in the field. And while Kyra may be aware she is not herself a psychologist, in places she thinks and talks like one to the point that her character becomes less believable and somewhat indistinguishable from Anna. (For example, when Kyra wonders if “maybe Freud was right about sublimation, the advantages of channeling unruly desires into something socially constructive,” it seems improbable that she would idly ponder her desire for Andreas in this context, but appropriate for Anna to venture such a theory.)
But when the psychological framework is indeed justified within the story, it skillfully facilitates the novel’s big questions—how does one move forward after so much has been destroyed? or how women in particular “have boundaries without having barriers” and adapt to structures made by men? These queries aren’t analysed but dramatized, allowing us to view them within the context of humanity instead of abstractly critiquing them.
Gilligan once told an interviewer it was frightening to move from writing in an academic tone as in her groundbreaking 1982 book “In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development,” to writing through the eyes of a fictional character. With her first novel, she achieves a closely observed voice and captivating perspective. Kyra is a rare thing: an engrossing, deeply emotional, thinking-person’s love story.