Sonja Livingston's second novel, "Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses," is this year's selection for Writers & Books' annual "If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book..." city-wide challenge. Livingston is currently visiting Rochester on a reading tour. An interview with the author can be found here.
The work is an engaging, moving read for anytime, but is well-timed for Women's History Month, as Livingston's collection of stories focuses on the wondrous strength and resilience of girls and women, in spite of all that the world hurls at them.
Throughout the book, Livingston navigates her readers through some very anxious and painful territory, but buffers them with poetry, philosophy, and wit. The stories are divided into three sections, which can perhaps be thought of as songs of innocence, songs of experience, and songs of living with wisdom gained.
In the early stories, we encounter the sparks of the author's lifelong fascination with the world's beauty, her preoccupation with goodness (a result of Catholic school training), and her struggles to balance goodness with daring. Livingston offers a gradual unveiling of the world of girlhood — the sweet pleasures, fuzzy confusions, and harsh disillusionments.
Her voice is conversational yet aimed to educate, and her stories meander, stream-like, as they erode banks of memory and eddy around what bits of the world settle upon the rushing waters.
In addition to women from her own life, Livingston's various stories star women of religious and cultural myth. Doomed Eve, exploited Persephone, and the revered Virgin Mary make appearances in the discussion of navigating morality. The author shares an innocently lewd game she and siblings played with the elusive Land O'Lakes Indian Maiden. The paradoxical, dazzling allure of Madonna (the singer) is an obsession and object of youthful emulation.
In "The Lady with the Alligator Purse," about Susan B. Anthony, Livingston muses on the suffragist's calculated discipline to make herself inconvenient — against everything women have been taught to be — in order to achieve her goals. The chapter tackles the problem of women and power. Girls are raised to don the ineffective armor of sweetness and beauty, and are condemned for refusing to wear it. After reminiscing over her youthful dismissal of the unglamorous activist, Livingston speaks to Anthony directly, itemizing in praise what she now understands as an adult woman.
Similarly, in "The Last American Virgin," she explores virtue and its unsatisfying payoffs for good women forgotten by history. "Who made the rules about boys and girls anyway?" Livingston writes. "And why should women be vessels of goodness, when some of its very best practitioners went unnoticed by the world?"
The story is also a meditation on the truest loss of innocence: disillusionment. Through a memory of a 1982 film and the anecdote of her own deflowering and disappointment, Livingston explores how the most vulnerable part of giving oneself to another is baring ourselves to the cold face of the world.
The first story in Part II, "A Party, in May" shoves the reader headlong into adult womanhood with an intimate exploration of the profoundly solitary nature of loss. In a cascade of associations, the author relates her experience of a miscarriage that happened while celebrating a triple birthday with family and friends.
Even in the midst of this tragic telling, Livingston's mind is rife with sensuality and an undying preoccupation with nature, and she is eternally spinning and weaving rich descriptions of experience. Everything connects backward in her stories; every personal anecdote is a branch that she traces toward an historic taproot. Specifically, the loss of the pregnancy and her fruitless fertility treatments are spied through the lenses of the biblical Sarah's miraculous fecundity at 90, and exist alongside Livingston's mother's own effortless fertility.
Among many other concepts, "Queen of the Fall" acutely explores how women brace themselves in two states regarding their fertility. Early virtue-training produces a terror of its potential, and at the nebulously ordained "right time," this fear shifts to the loss of it. "Women had children, plain and simple," Livingston writes in "Sybil." "The trick to success, it seemed, was to delay it and make it through high school — but that children would come was a given."
In Part III, Livingston gorgeously describes discovering her voice and flexing her wings. In "Flight," she recounts the pivotal connection with the writer Judith Kitchen, with whom she took essay classes at Brockport. Her anxiousness has calmed, or has shifted toward a perceptive concern for others. As a school counselor in "One for Sorrow," Livingston sees troubled youths with needed but perhaps impotent clarity.
Other chapters are filled with wonder-filled praise for her energetic mother-in-law and elegant observances of the complex lives of strangers. The closing sees the author midway along a path, quickened by reflection and possibility. "Queen of the Fall" champions women's capacity to rise and rise again.
For more information on Sonja Livingston's readings and workshop, visit wab.org. An interview with Livingston can be found here.