The Resurrection of Joan Ashby
Flatiron Books, September 2017
In her first novel, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, Cherise Wolas stretches the boundaries of the “story within a story” form. The book begins with an article about Joan Ashby, an author who, at age twenty-one, landed a collection of short stories on the New York Times bestseller list and won a National Book Award. Her book, Other Small Spaces, was translated into thirty-five languages. Four years later Ashby again lands another collection of short stories on the bestseller list. Fictional Family Life is shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize. The article includes a brief biography of Ashby and excerpts of an interview with her, before including two of her short stories.
Joan Ashby is on the top of the New York literary scene when she meets Martin Manning, who looks like a poet but is in reality an eye surgeon. She vowed at an early age never to fall in love or let anyone interfere with her writing, but Dr. Manning’s charm is hard to resist. Her only resistance to his proposal is the thought that he might want a family, but he assures her he doesn’t want any children.
So it comes as a shock to her, when in their first year of marriage, she discovers she is pregnant. When she shares the news with Martin, fully intending to terminate the pregnancy, he becomes misty eyed and declares “I’ve never been so happy” and runs out for champagne to celebrate. She debates whether to walk away from Martin, but eventually becomes resigned to the idea of parenthood, knowing that there will likely be a second child after the first.
During her courtship with Martin, and up until the birth of her first child, Joan was writing her first novel, The Sympathetic Executioners, which she trashed on the day before she went into labor. It is twenty-eight years before she publishes anything else. Her next book sees the light of day as the result of a betrayal, and a fracture within her family.
A story of the dissatisfaction of an upper middle class suburban woman, it is complicated by the inclusion of the various short stories and excerpts from the main character’s writing, which tend to be on the dark side. The book jacket blurbs mentions echoes of Joan Didion and Carson McCullers—I was reminded of Elizabeth Berg and Jane Smiley. I’d also like to read the rest of the included novel, The Sympathetic Executioners.
Reviewed by Susan Belsky, November 2017.