Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

There are all these people here I don't know by sight or by name. And we pass alongside each other and don't have any connection. And they don't know me and I don't know them. And now I'm leaving town and there are all these people I will never know.
 The Member of the Wedding is a book about belonging. Frankie is in that weird in between stage where she no feels like a child but is not yet welcome in the world of adults. Her brother is getting married and the wedding becomes her way out of this limbo--finally she will be a member of something. Frankie decides (without speaking to any of the parties involved) that after the wedding, she will join her brother and sister in law as they travel around the world on their honeymoon.

I first read this book when I was a freshman in high school, and our teacher had each of us read the opening line out loud. I remember little about the book, but I still remember the first sentence: "It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old." I remember how my voice sounded saying it, and what it felt like to hear the sentence echoed over and over around the room. The following sentences perfectly summarize the floating anxiety of pre-teen existence:
This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Franke had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid. 
That looming fear only heightens as the wedding draws closer, and Frankie's sense of isolation increases as well. Her housekeeper, Berenice, and cousin, John Henry, don't understand her. Her girlfriends have all abandoned her for a cooler set. She has a haircut she hates and brown patches on her elbows she can't rub off. Nothing about Frankie fits the way she wants it to (even the fancy dress she buys for the wedding and the giant sombrero she wears to shade herself from the sun), and the word she uses again and again to describe that disconnect between what she wants to be and what she is is fear.

Frankie's ambition and imagination are impressive, but her age, sex, and circumstances are constantly getting in her way.
She wanted to be a boy and go to the war as a Marine. She though about flying aeroplanes and winning gold medals for bravery. But she could not join the war, and this made her sometimes restless and blue. She decided to donate blood to the Red Cross; she wanted to donate a quart a week and her blood would be in the veins Australians and Fighting French and Chinese, all over the whole world, and it would be as tough she were close to kin to all of these people. She could hear the army doctors saying that the blood of Frankie Addams was the reddest and the strongest blood that they had ever known. And she could picture ahead, in the years after the war, meeting the soldiers who had her blood, and they would say that they owed their life to her; and they would not call her Frankie--they would call her Addams But this plan for donating her blood to the war did not come true. The Red Cross would not take her blood. She was to young. Frankie felt mad with the Red Cross, and left out of everything. The war and the world were too fast and big and strange. To think about the world for very long made her afraid. She was not afraid of Germans or bombs or Japanese. She was afraid because in the war they would not include her, and because the world seemed somehow separate from herself. 
This stage of adolescence where you understand the world enough to want to be involved in it but fully engage with it is perfectly and agonizingly captured. At every turn Frankie is isolated and excluded and her fear and anger only increases.

Besides the opening line, I vividly remembered Frankie fighting off a rape. This turned out to be a little less central to the book (and much less rapey) than I remembered, but part of Frankie's frustration confusion comes from her total lack of understanding of sex. Her brother is getting married; her friends are in budding relationships; the soldiers home from war are hiring prostitutes, and Frankie is at once fascinated and disgusted by the idea of sex (although she never calls it that). There are a few odd moments (in the weirdest one, she licks her cousin's ear in his sleep), but the rape scene goes much less far than I remember it going, and Frankie defends herself impressively. She never quite gets over her discomfort with sex, but she does emerge with a more adult understanding of the world and her place in it, including, unfortunately, the devastating realization that she will not be joining her brother on his honeymoon. While Frankie is struggling to find her place in the world, she never lacks in self assurance or courage.

The ending is not too saccharine or neat; Frankie finds a friend and some happiness, and even though we get the sense that it may not last, Frankie's brave defiance makes us fairly confident she'll turn out just fine.

While I can see why this was assigned reading in high school, I appreciated it much more as an adult. It was funny and sad and rang true in ways that I don't think I quite processed as a fourteen year old. As a teenager, I think this just served to point out all the ways in which I didn't belong either and all the ways in which the adult world was terrifying. A (somewhat) deeper familiarity with the world of adults has led me to a greater confidence that Frankie is going to be okay, and I will too.