Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ramona and Her Mother (by Beverly Cleary)

Ramona, Ramona, Ramona...

How dare Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Skarsgard name their daughter after Ramona Quimby, making it impossible for the rest of us to use this idea!

I could explain the plot of "Ramona and Her Mother," but Cleary's writing is so direct, so crystal-clear, no explanation is necessary.

Suffice it to say that, when young Cleary was setting out to become a writer, her mother gave her two pieces of advice: "Keep it simple and make it funny".......and Cleary did just that, over and over, throughout her spectacular career.

Oh, OK: I'll mention a few specifics about this particular book. At the end of the novel, Ramona learns that her teacher thinks that she is a "sparkler," and so she redesigns her signature to make the "y" of "Quimby" into a little sparkler that you would see on the fourth of July. (And, yes, I was so charmed by this ending that I went ahead and re-wrote my own signature, and turned the final "t" into a sparkler.) .....Also, in this novel, you have a constant sense of Mom's struggles, even as Ramona repeatedly misinterprets what is happening in Mom's life. (And how difficult it is to pull off this feat--to communicate to the reader that, though the protagonist is seeing events in one way, events are actually unfolding in quite a different way.....This is the kind of work that Jane Austen does in "Emma." And when P.D. James points out that all good novels are really, at heart, detective novels, she might as well be talking about "Ramona and Her Mother." You know throughout the book that something significant is on Mom's mind, and when you finally learn what it is, you can appreciate how carefully Cleary has laid out her clues.)

Certain writers are just miraculously capable of writing several well-made books. This is not to say they are the most awe-inspiring writers on a sentence-by-sentence level. (I think Lorrie Moore writes the most beautiful and surprising sentences you can find in a book, and yet often her novels don't quite work. Things don't add up. The plot is rather lumpy and sluggish.) .....Writers such as Beverly Cleary, Barbara Pym, and Hilary Mantel may not put together the most memorable sentences, but their books simply work......they work in a way that few other books can pull off. And, yes, I would rank Cleary with Pym and Mantel. Cleary is an American treasure whose reputation will only grow in the next 100 years.

Finally, I feel compelled to point out that Cleary's memoirs are as terrific as her fiction. The sensible, quietly resilient way with which she deals with life's disappointments--very little money, an overbearing boyfriend, some mildly crazy parents.....the toughness Cleary displays is inspiring.

And when, around the age of 30, she takes some time off from one of her various librarian jobs and sits down to begin to write, you find yourself holding your breath.

You know what kind of work is on its way.

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