Review by Sara Watson
It is Frankie who compels me, with her particularly gloomy and yet somehow charming brand of adolescent anguish, to pull this book from my shelf again and again. And it is every exquisite sentence that keeps me reading through to the end. Check out this opening, easily one of the most beautiful in all American literature:
It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. 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. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.
In The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers—probably most famous for her 1940 novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter—describes Frankie Addams’s twelfth summer, the summer when she finds herself, as if in a moment, no longer a child. The trouble for Frankie is that there also seems to be a world of difference between herself and her understanding of grown women. She lives in an in-between place, in the kitchen with its radio always on, wandering aimlessly around town, or in her too-hot bedroom with a useless little motor running just for the buzz of it. And she is sick to death of nearly everything.
Frankie is looking for a way out, and her opportunity arrives, she believes, with the announcement of her older brother’s wedding. “I’m going to Winter Hill,” Frankie declares. “I’m going to the wedding. And I swear to Jesus by my two eyes I’m never coming back here any more.” Bernice, a kind of cook or caregiver with whom Frankie whiles away the kitchen hours, fears that Frankie is foolish, stupid, or even insane. Bernice tries to explain that “the main thing about a wedding,” is “two is company and three is a crowd.” “Two by two,” Bernice tries to get through to the girl, “[Noah] admitted them creatures two by two.”
But Frankie isn’t stupid; in fact, she is brilliantly naïve. Her suspension of disbelief is like a garment into which she has carefully, deliberately buttoned herself. In her state of willful unknowing, Frankie reminds me of that narrow window of time in which my whole life seemed to be ahead of me. That moment (was it three days? a summer? a year?) when I truly believed that I might become anyone. Like Frankie renaming herself every day, I was evolving before my own eyes. The possibilities felt limitless.
Frankie is, like so many twelve-year-old girls, miserable. But she is also observant and hopeful and funny, and McCullers has given her heroine a delightful little cast of characters to comment on, including her 6-year-old cross-dressing cousin John Henry, a psychic called Big Mama, and a man with a dancing monkey. The summer’s oppressive heat is almost a character in itself, which is maybe why this is a book best read slowly and in one sitting, on a day so hot it feels like you might suffocate. Read it once for the plot and again for the music. I’m betting you’ll find you can’t quit.
Sara Watson is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati and associate editor of The Cincinnati Review. Her poems have recently appeared in The Southern Review, The Minnesota Review, PANK, and Fourth River.