marginalia || The Mountain Lion, by Jean Stafford

Jean Stafford‘s introduction to her 1947 novel, The Mountain Lion, closes with: “Poor old Molly! I loved her dearly and [spoiler spoiler spoiler].” That never augurs well. You begin the novel wary of tragedy, anticipating brokenness and all-around disaster. That you feel, even within the first few pages, that it shall all lead to you bawling in a shady corner. I know I let out one of those hoarse/squeaky screams in a crowded train when I reached the book’s end. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we, Miss Stafford?

The novel opens with brother and sister, Ralph and Molly Fawcett, let out from school early, nursing dual-nosebleeds. They share the aftereffects of scarlet fever, which they both suffered through–Ralph and Molly look identical, act the same, are both sensitive and bookish and keep to themselves, are intolerant of the same fussy adults, bound together against the rest of the world. There’s something touchingly symbolic about this bond through nosebleed, but more so, I couldn’t help–even at this first handful of sentences–but feel nervous. Blood makes me queasy. The image of two children walking home with chronic nosebleeds–often striking them simultaneously–I find cute [but I am strange]. But yes, it made me nervous.

It’s a coming-of-age story, one distinct of its treatment of two childhoods. It’s more than seeing Ralph and Molly grow up and, as we expect, grow their own ways: What Stafford chooses to focus on is how they splinter. We’re witness to how a seemingly indestructible bond falters due to your usual reasons: Ralph and Molly need to strike their own paths. Whereas once they were united against the world, against its tragedies, against the more frivolous members of their families–this unity falls apart. A steadfast love turns into adolescent annoyance, hinting at a possibly intense hatred.

He looked at his weedy sister with dislike as she crouched on her heels, plucking the lilies all around her, and when she looked up at him, her large humble eyes fondling his face with lonely love, he wanted to cry out with despair because hers was really the only love he had and he found it nothing but a burden and a tribulation.

A death in the family spurs this splintering, and it’s not noticeable early on: They simply have different ways of dealing with their grief. Ralph’s introspection leads him to desire more of the outside world. Molly’s thoughts acquire this morose and bitter edge.

“Do you know, Molly, I sometimes think you and Ralph are happier with your uncle than you are at home.”
“I do not believe in happiness,” said Molly.

The differences are compounded by their visits to their Uncle Claude’s ranch in Colorado. The landscape gives Ralph the opportunity to be a man–he has grown up with three sisters, and a fussy mother, a father gone too soon. Molly grows more awkward, too serious for her age. Too aware and stubborn of her differences to be called precocious. It’s heady, it’s symbolic. And there’s a trace of unease seeing these two fall apart. A sadness. And, yes, that nervousness again.

For four years now Ralph and Molly had divided their year between the men and he merchants. Their lives were like those of children of divorced parents who spend a season of each year with their father and the bulk of it with their mother and who feel themselves thus split in half and sometimes find their memories confused, so that they cannot be sure what books have been read, which ideas acquired, which sounds and shapes perceived in the two separate households. Their own relationship was likewise a double one. At the ranch, they all but ignored one another, but in Covina, alone with their mother now that Leah and Rachel were away at boarding school, they were still close friends.

It’s a compelling story–this from a girl who doesn’t have a lot of coming-of-age novels in her bookshelves. Emotions run high–the intensity of childhood, of adolescence!–and Stafford takes advantage of this: She can be ruthless: Stafford can be ruthless: Molly was not only ugly, she had a homemade look, a look of having been put together by an inexperienced hand. As ruthless as Molly, who keeps a list of Unforgivables [a list that alarmingly grows in number].

Stafford can be surprisingly tender too: The discovery of adulthood, almost as if you’ve only stumbled upon it–He whirled round and round in his rapid love; it pricked him on the breastbone like a needle. He wanted to be shut up in a small space to think about it. He wanted to grab it and eat it like an apple so that nobody else could have it.

I think what makes it compelling is how calm it can be, despite that faithfulness to those high emotions. [Remember when a text reply that took two minutes too long in coming would make you want to wail, Sasha?] It’s eerie, how controlled Stafford is, how she delineates between her characters so well–Everything is necessary, not a word out of place. It’s all so organic, all the symbols moving toward that must-happen ending. Spoiler or no spoiler from the author herself, there’s something intrinsically base about that penultimate scene that it’s perfect for the novel. And no, I didn’t see that coming. But that wariness was always there, Something bad’s going to happen. It did. One moment you’re watching Ralph and Molly splinter, the next, whoomp.

The verdict? I screamed in a crowded train, on my commute home. That’s, like, ya know, major. And annoying. But yeah. There.

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14 comments

  1. Clearly a powerful ending.

    Nice review. I see why you liked it, but there’s enough quoted that I don’t think I would. It feels very writerly to me, and I find myself asking does anyone really say things like “I do not believe in happiness”?

    Perhaps adolescents do, on reflection.

    At the risk of being profoundly shallow, I do like the cover.

    1. “I do not believe in happiness” was said by a girl in her early teens. Ah, pubescent angst. :] Molly’s a strange one, unnerving. At one point, her brother complains to their Uncle, “I think she’s gone crazy.” And a part of me agrees. A part of me thinks, “Hormones.” A part of me thinks that Molly’s just Molly. And all too familiar.

      The painting’s called The Shower, by William Herbert Dunton. This edition has a plum cover and stripe. It’s gorgeous.

  2. Huh, well, it’s better written than I was thinking then. I didn’t know it was an adolescent’s voice, it just suddenly struck me that it might be.

    Still a little writerly overall for my tastes (does that word make sense to you? Do you know what I mean?), but the line between hormones/being crazy and being oneself is often hard to tell. Particularly at that age.

    It is gorgeous. Thanks for the citation. I’ll check out Dunton.

  3. Jennifer · · Reply

    Agh. Again, another book that I have been moved to add to my ever-growing list of stuff to read! I think it’s an intriguing concept, the splintering of a bond that was once so strong and unifying.

  4. I actually own a copy of this, and you’re making me desperately want to read it before I move away in two weeks and leave all my tbr in storage. Which is a good thing. I tend to love that kind of restrained, bubbling-just-under-the-surface writing, so I think I’ll write this a lot.

    1. I suppose it’s what one would assume a coming-of-age novel written in the 1940s feels like, at least at the beginning. :] And then wham, haha.
      And good luck on your move! You are relinquishing your TBR at the soonest, right? :]

  5. I added a link to your review to the Saturday Review at Semicolon. This book sounds intirguing, but I’m not much for the blankety blank blank. As my mom said, I think it shows a lack of vocabulary.

    1. Oh no! I was the one who put in the blankity-blank — Stafford gives a spoiler to her novel in the introduction. I’m sorry for the misunderstanding, I’m changing it now. :]

  6. That would be “intriguing.”

  7. I reviewed this one for the Seminary Coop and really enjoyed it. I felt the same way you did about the two kids—they made me nervous, they had this super tight bond, and then it got all weird, and there was a lot of tension. I thought Stafford was really good at keeping the right level of tension throughout—as evidenced by that scream of yours. You know what’s going to happen but it’s still so powerful when it does. Glad you liked it!

    1. I don’t even recall that turn, when I was just reading and being charmed by the two children, and into dread. Even without reflecting on how Stafford gives away the ending to her story, she builds it up. There’s just so much hinting, but it never bombards. The latter part of the book just hurtles you towards its conclusion, and that was just wonderful. High-give for us both liking it, haha!

  8. […] The Mountain Lion, by Jean Stafford. […]

  9. […] guess you can see where I’m going. Last month, I read my first Jean Stafford, The Mountain Lion. And then, in the introduction, I read about her marriage to Robert Lowell. I did that Huh thing, […]

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