- - Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Miranda Popkey’s “Topics of Conversation” feels, and often reads, like a diary. For one thing, it’s a small easy-to-hold book. More significantly, since its narrative spools out as a series of conversations between the unnamed chronicler and other women, reading it is rather like peeking into someone’s private journal. 

Of course, this makes it fascinating, but equally, it makes it feel a bit transgressive. The frank-seeming conversations expose so much pain, embarrassment, loneliness, envy, pettiness, short-sightedness that the reader swings from celebrating the bright got-it pages that dissect rarely acknowledged female feelings to metaphorically shielding the eyes from the characters’ emotional nakedness.

The nakedness is literal in the first conversation of the book. The elegant 44-year-old Artemisia casually removes her bikini while answering the young narrator’s questions about child care. They need boundaries is their mother’s advice. Any boundaries will do, but boundaries there must be. 

The narrator, who is in her nanny avatar at this point, could benefit from this life advice (as could most of her friends). It’s 2000, she’s just graduated and is looking after Artemisia’s twins in a luxurious Italian resort. As they play, she reads Sylvia Plath’s journals. “They shouldn’t have done it, got married,” she reflects on the troubled partnership between Plath and Ted Hughes. 

And that is also true of many of those whose behavior she later records: The single mothers who explore the litter of their relationships; Norman Mailer’s wife, Adele, who refuses to bring a case against him after he hospitalized her in a bloody assault: her own mother, who after a failed first marriage slept with her therapist.

“It was very therapeutic, she proclaims. “It proved a larger point that I could be totally emotionally open with someone, totally vulnerable and he would still want to sleep with me.” 

Artemisia’s contribution to the mosaic of stories is a monologue in which she explains that her first husband’s one violent episode sprang from his loss of control in their marriage. “His desire for control stemmed not from his power but from its lack,” she notes. Since she needs control, to be the child rather than the parent in the marriage, this doomed their relationship. 

Thinking about this, the narrator reflects, “She was less a master of fate, captain of her ship, than she was a clever gardener. Sequestered in a domestic plot, she worked with tools at her disposal. Trapped yes, but in a hedge maze of her own careful design.” 

The conversations she reports span 17 years and occur in several places: In Ann Arbor where she is a graduate student, then in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other California cities until finally we discover her in the San Joaquin Valley, where she is living in a small house with her child. 

One way of describing her in her parental avatar is that after treading a rocky path, and drifting — or rather plunging — into alcoholism, she seems to have grown up. She was always smart; now she’s wiser.

Miranda Popkey charts this growth perceptively, showing the young narrator proud of her the Ph.D. she never quite completed, then dropping this doubtful non-achievement as she moves away from the academic world and confronts issues in her marriage. 

When she leaves her husband — her good husband — she notes that that she was always “best at being a vessel for the desires of others” — and thus she wanted to be used as a means, not an end, “and mostly it made me miserable and was evil besides.”

She’s good at this kind of analysis, and so she learns from all those heart-to hearts she reports on. She notes, for example, “There is, below the surface of every conversation in which intimacies are shared, an erotic current. Sometimes this current is so hot it all but boils, and other times it’s barely lukewarm, hardly noticeable, but always the current is present. … Nothing binds two people like sharing a secret.”  

Such insights make this book readable, compulsively so, and its account of women emerging from the buffetings of early adulthood and becoming people who can cope is compelling. 

Another strength is the author’s tight control of the language, and her sharp eyes and ears for the detail or the dialogue that illumine situations.

Not so compelling are the characterizations. Apart from the narrator’s mother, who loves flowers and gin and her husband and only child, and is also perceptive, most of the others are mouthpieces rather than people.

Occasionally, one briefly springs from the page: The guy picked up in a San Francisco bar, for example, and Fran, who challenges the group of single mothers gathered to talk about their situations. “Who cares about understanding why? Nobody has a plan for you and your life doesn’t have a soundtrack, it’s just a series of accidents and split-second decisions and coincidences and demographies.” 

It’s a good point. One of the many that make this novel quite gripping. 

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

• • •


By Miranda Popkey

Alfred A. Knopf, $24, 224 pages

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