DEAR FANG, WITH LOVE
By Rufi Thorpe
Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95, 320 pages
Novelists and playwrights love putting the girl behind the eight ball. To cite only work in English, think of Shakespeare’s Viola and Rosalind and Juliet; of Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett; of Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne and Rapaccini’s daughter; of Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Dickens’ Little Dorrit. This trope is not just the stock-in-trade of classic literature; it’s very much alive in contemporary novels. Many of Toni Morrison’s heroines exemplify it, and so does Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” What characterizes most of these teens and twenties women is talent, intelligence and confidence in the face of inexperience, and optimism reinforced by determination — and also lack of knowledge. Readers root for them, not least because ideally the literary pattern mimics a life pattern, and like life, things can turn out well — though sometimes not.
In “Dear Fang, With Love” the bright but threatened girl is Vera, whose name tells us that she seeks and tells the truth. Her father Lucas records that as a five-year-old guest at a birthday party she saw the hostess insisting on party games long after the kids were bored and the birthday girl in tears. Suggesting that it’s time for presents and cake, Vera loudly tells this obtuse mother, “If you had wanted a birthday party so badly, you should have thrown one for yourself.”
Lucas was not around at when this happened. Vera had been conceived when he and her Russian mother Katya were teenaged lovers. “Let’s make a baby, baby” Katya had suggested. But after a disconcerting spell on a communal farm, Lucas realized he wasn’t coping and called his mom. This put him pretty much out of Vera’s life until she was 12. Since then weekend visits have not eroded her suspicions of him. Nonetheless when she has a psychotic break followed by depression, he suggests that go on a history tour to Vilnius together, and Vera agrees.
Why Vilnius? That’s because Lucas’s Grandma Sylvia had been there in World War II, when she had been whisked naked from the gas chamber by an SS officer who raped her, but let her escape. Lucas wants to go and check out his heritage. He and Vera learn that the city was once a haven of Jewish life, but its citizens were terrorized by first the Nazis then the Soviets. For Vera, who is Jewish, as are some members of their tour group, the Holocaust and the Temple destroyed by the Soviets loom large. Meanwhile Lucas, whose family was Catholic, learns more about his forebears. Grandma Sylvia’s story begins to look suspicious, and he finds himself looking at his history in a different way — in other words, questioning his identity.
Vera questions too. As the daughter of a Russian Jew brought up in California, where her boyfriend Fang is Tongan, she emails him: “Maybe I’m not Russian, but maybe I have to keep returning to the idea of Russia. Like, I’m not from there, but I’m destined to keep returning to it. It’s part of the dance of my identity. Which, you know, what if identity is more of a dance or a pattern than a thing? Like, what if it isn’t so much a noun as a verb? And in the same way, I am destined to keep returning to my own Jewishness or lack thereof. It’s a part of the pattern of the way I am existing. Do you feel that way about being Tongan?”
As the novel progresses these questions loom large because they are fundamental to the lives of many of the characters — older people, mostly, but searching for something or somebody they have lost. Each seeker is alone, each haunted by the need for answers.
Rufi Thorpe handles their tales deftly, knitting them together but giving weight to differences rather than merging them. She paints stark and convincing pictures of the memories her characters can scarcely bear to revisit. She doesn’t dish out blame nor offer easy comfort to those in distress. This is why Vera and Lucas and their tour companions will live on in the reader’s imagination, all of them longing for something that seems out of reach, or if achieved, then grasped too late.
As much as the characters live on, so too will Vilnius. Ms. Thorpe evokes it beautifully as odd, memorable, and — like its visitors — inescapably defined by its past. She is both a skilled and intelligent writer: an adept of vivid prose and deft pacing. This book is her second novel. Let’s hope for more to come. She is definitely an author to watch.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.