Sunday, December 16, 2007

Letty Fox: Her Luck by Christina Stead

I chose this book for the challenge because several years ago, I read and enjoyed another novel by Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children.

Letty Fox: Her Luck is the first-person life story of Letty Fox, who is growing up in a "broken home". Her father lives openly with his mistress. The women on her mother's side of the family (except her mother, who is tired and bitter) are mostly scheming to find husbands. Her uncle goes from woman to woman to woman and seems bewildered when they are furious at his playing around.

As Letty emerges into womanhood, she seems determined not to be part of this same cycle, to assert herself as an intellectual, but she gets involved with several worthless cads. Finally tired of the dating game, she reconnects with an old friend, Bill Van Week, who is also weary of all that. Soon married and pregnant shortly after that, Letty vows that she's "made a fresh start in life...and the journey has begun", but it seems like she and Bill Van Week (did you notice that last name?) are merely picking up the clownish chaos of the previous generation. When/If Bill strays, will Letty become like her father or her mother?

I was amused at the combination of Letty's sophistication, intellectualism and naivete. At sixteen or seventeen, she decides she's in love with the first of her wastrel boyfriends. In her fantasy, they'll travel Europe, and somehow, she'll also go to college and have a career and finish having a family, all by the age of 24. "I didn't want to be done out of anything," Letty tells the reader. Also, when it comes to the politics of sex, she's willfully blind and gets everything ass-backwards. For example, she thinks that once she lets someone like Luke or Amos sleep with her, they're in her power and she's conquered them. Repeatedly she's surprised when they don't call or come by for weeks and months after.

Also amusing and somewhat surprising was Stead's/Letty's frank talk about horniness. For some reason, Letty feels the 'fox tearing at her vitals' very strongly after she visits a rich artist, Lucy Headlong, for a long weekend on two separate occasions. Stead doesn't really do anything else with this.

On the negative side, Letty Fox: Her Luck is a book that could have used some extra editing. Letty's paternal grandmother, Jenny Fox, is going senile, and she runs on in a disjointed way for several pages at a time on several different occasions. It's a relief when her character finally dies so that the reader isn't subjected to her dialog any longer.

In addition, Letty has a sister, Jacky. Both are intellectuals in their own ways, and exchange letters often. The letters sound almost identical. Who is writing to whom? The letters go on for pages and pages. Also, Letty seems to talk at, rather than to people, and they to her. Stead is better when she's got Letty inside Letty's own head.

It was difficult to feel attached to any of the other characters in the novel, because they all feel so brittle or clownish. Letty's father's mistress, Persia seems interesting, but she's just barely on the sidelines. Briefly, Letty is roommates with a consummate gold-digger named Amy. Amy not only gold-digs, she helps her friends pursue rich husbands, and she's always ready to go the extra mile. For example, Amy pretends by mail to be another jealous lover until her friend is safely engaged. Letty makes a list of Amy's tricks, rules and aphorisms, which is really quite funny and a breath of fresh air in an often airless novel. Unfortunately, Letty and Amy have a falling-out, and Amy disappears.

Letty is often irritating and sometimes downright unlikable. (No one can do irritating and unlikable like Stead; it is truly her dubious gift as a novelist!) In a strange little episode, Jacky falls in love with a much older professor, as is her inclination throughout the novel. After the two sisters talk about this man, Letty casually seduces and sleeps with him out of curiosity.

I was relieved to be finished with this novel, but found myself for days afterward thinking about Letty and wondering and worrying about her future. In spite of what I perceive as the flaws and ungainliness of this book, it seems as if Stead has succeeded. Her power as a novelist is startling and immense. I'm interested in reading at least one more novel of hers, a later one called I'm Dying Laughing.

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