When I first saw Vera in the psych ward, she was wearing paper slippers and eating a banana.
Lucas, seventeen-year-old Vera’s father, is our narrator. He and Vera’s mother, Katya, were eighteen when Katya became pregnant. Lucas didn’t stick around, taking himself to university, re-entering Vera’s life briefly when she was four and then on a more permanent basis when she was eleven.
She set down her banana and looked at me. “We see each other on the weekends, and its fine. You rent whatever movie I want, great, fine. But sometimes you are so desperate for me to like you that it makes me annoyed. You’re like a dog begging for attention. It disgusts me. You are honestly the last person in the world I want to talk to right now.”
Vera’s been brought into the psychiatric ward from a party where she stripped naked and began reading from the book of Revelation, after which she attempted to baptize some cheerleaders with sour apple liqueur then tried to slit her wrists. Vera’s diagnosed with bipolar I with psychotic features, a diagnosis that her mother refuses to believe.
Eventually, Lucas starts to think Vera isn’t mentally ill either, ‘I sometimes felt the doctors were simply trying to medicate the Russianness out of her’ and decides to take her on a trip to Vilnius where his grandmother was born.
Grandma Sylvia came with many stories, but the one that dwarfs the others is the tale of how she escaped the gas chambers: because she was so beautiful, a Nazi soldier pulled her out, raped her, threw her some clothes and money and told her to run.
“And so your grandmother always celebrated that day,” my mother would say, “as her second birthday, her rape birthday.”
The term “rape birthday” made me cringe, especially as I got older.
“Why cringe?” my mother said. “He saved her life. Rape happens. Rape is a fact of life. Nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I’m not ashamed of it,” I would say, but I was lying. I thought that rape was something shameful and terrible that a woman would not ever want to talk about. But I could still remember the cheap supermarket cakes my grandmother would buy for herself on her rape birthday, the blue flowers of lard frosting she would lick off the knife.
I’m sure it’s clear by now that this book isn’t an easy read. There’s a lot in here about survival – surviving war and genocide, mental illness, widowhood, divorce, being a single parent, being abandoned as a baby. Thorpe made an interesting choice in deciding to tell the bulk of the story from Lucas’ point-of-view, that of a privileged, white, American male who spends a fair portion of the book acting like an overgrown baby. There’s a brilliant moment towards the end where he goes to find a woman he’s been having a holiday fling with to share all his woes with her.
“See,” she said, “as you were talking, I realized, you know, I’ve done this a hundred times before. Not with you, I’m not saying you’ve done this to me a hundred times. But in my life, I’ve listened to a man cry and sob and bemoan what a failure he is or what a bad person or tell me how tragic his life is. And I have always let my heart go out to them, and I have always tried to mother and to fix and to help, but you know what? It never actually works. I’m just getting too old to keep doing it, Lucas. You can’t imagine how surreal it was, as you kept going on and on, it was like I was trapped in a scene I had played a thousand times. And the truth is, we don’t really know each other, do we? It’s not my job to leap in and help you get your life sorted. You need to grow up and do that on your own.”
At which point, I punched the air. Of course, having Lucas narrate means he’s unreliable – he doesn’t really know his daughter, and his family stories are, well, his family’s versions of things they’ve been told. As the book unfolds, Lucas’ sense of himself unravels.
He’s not the only one: the beginning of each chapter is an either an email from Vera to her boyfriend, Fang, or a word document Vera’s written. She becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea that Fang has cheated on her after seeing a photograph of him with his arm around another girl on Facebook and then with philosophy and whether the self actually exists.
Dear Fang, With Love is an interesting novel (and a leap from Thorpe’s debut The Girls from Corona del Mar). An examination of whether you can really know another person; whether you can really know where you came from, and whether you can really know yourself. It’s a complex book, one that I think requires several readings. I think they’re the best kind of books but I suspect that’s a matter of taste.
Thanks to Corsair for the review copy.