Out of the Shadows (NAL Trade, 2010) is my friend and colleague Joanne Rendell's third novel. Each of her books is beautifully written; their stories are rich and engaging and all touch upon some aspect of female friendships.
In this most recent book, Clara Fitzgerald is the protagonist whose recent losses have set her adrift, personally and professionally. Her mother has passed away, and her career seems stalled while her fiancé's scientific research is poised to take off in an exciting new direction. As great as the potential is for his future, Clare can't help - or ignore - that her emotional connection to him has slowly been slipping away. But when Clara stumbles on an old copy of Frankenstein and remembers her mother's claim that they are related to the nineteenth-century author, Mary Shelley, everything changes.
I was delighted to speak to Joanne about her new book:
Irene: At the heart of Out of the Shadows is a friendship between the thirty-four year old protagonist, Clara, and an elderly Mary Shelley scholar, Kay. Why were you drawn to a story of intergenerational friendship?
Joanne: I thought it would be interesting and provocative to include an intergenerational friendship in Out of the Shadows because the novel explores, among other things, the fear of death and aging. Clara's fiancé Anthony Greene is a successful geneticist who is developing a drug that might fight cancer. His drug works on the genes associated with aging and thus has the potential to extend life too. Anthony is uneasy about getting old and his research clearly taps into his own fears of aging and dying. Meanwhile, Clara gains so much from her developing friendship with Kay who is in her eighties. Kay not only shares Clara's enthusiasm for Mary Shelley, but she also offers wisdom and insight that only comes from having lived such a long life. Clara is struggling in her own thirty-something life and Kay provides guiding, astute, and loving light for her.
Irene: Did you base Clara and Kay's friendship on an intergenerational friendship in your own life?
Joanne: Not exactly. Although, when I wrote Kay's character, I was definitely thinking of an amazing older woman I knew when I still lived in the UK who was also called Kay. She was the grandmother of my then-boyfriend and she was such a smart, funny, and interesting woman. She'd traveled all over the world, lost her husband when she was just a young mother, and had a successful career as a university professor. She had so many interesting stories to tell. I loved her company and a few times we had dinner together, just the two of us. She devoured home-fried chips (French Fries) that were my specialty and I ate up her stories!
Irene: Intergenerational friendships are not unheard of but they are definitely less common than friendships among the same generation. Why do you think that is so?
Joanne: It starts with the school system, I think. Right from the start kids are put into classes with thirty other kids the same age. They spend the entire week (and most of the year) with this group of peers and the only adults they have much contact time with are their parents and teachers. They have even less time with retired or elderly people. From our earliest days we're socialized into feeling more at ease with our peers than people in other age groups - which is a shame as it seems we could all benefit from more diversified social circles. The young can learn so much from older people, and vice versa.
Irene: Is this why you homeschool your son?
Joanne: Yes, it is one of the reasons. It's funny, when we tell people that we're homeschooling our seven year old son, the first question we are always asked is, "What about socialization?" But my response is always to question what "socialization" actually means. My son is not being socialized into spending every day with a big group of kids his exact age, it's true. However, because he is not in a traditional school setting, we have a lot of time to socialize out in the world, meeting all kinds of people of all different ages. Benny has friends his own age, of course, but we're often out on adventures (to museums, galleries, homeschool classes, zoos, and parks) and he's continually socializing with a broad array of people. I'm hoping this kind of childhood will set him up for a lifetime of intergenerational socializing and friendships.
Irene: Why did you decide to write a book about Mary Shelley?
Joanne: I've always loved Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It's a wonderful gothic novel, but it's very thoughtful, daring, and extremely prescient too - even now, two hundred years after it was written. Frankenstein has had a huge cultural impact. It has inspired numerous novels, countless movies, and the name Frankenstein is known throughout the popular imagination. In spite of this, many people don't know that a nineteen year old woman called Mary Shelley wrote the original book. Fewer people still know anything about this woman who led a rich yet tragic life, who married the daring romantic poet called Percy Shelley, and who was the child of two radical writers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. In Out of the Shadows I wanted to bring Mary Shelley out of the shadows of the monster she created.
Irene: In Out of the Shadows, you alternate between the story of Clara and the story of young Mary Shelley preparing to write Frankenstein. Why did you decide to narrate the book like this?
Joanne: In many ways, Clara and Mary's stories in the book are so different. Mary is a young girl growing up in early nineteenth-century London, while Clara is a thirty-something professor who lives in modern day New York City. But there are many similarities and echoes too. For one, Clara's story resonates with Shelley's most famous book. Clara's fiancé is not unlike Victor Frankenstein, in his ambition, his desire to extend life, and his creation of something so dangerous that it eventually causes him great troubles.
I think the stories of the two women speak to each other on other levels too. Mary and Clara are both on the cusp of finding themselves. They are searching for a way out of the shadows of those around them. For Mary, it is the shadow of her mother's death, her father's protection, and the life that doesn't yet fulfill her. For Clara, she must find a way to live for herself, to pursue her own dreams, and not just follow her fiancé's career.
Irene: Your books always include a literary theme. In The Professors' Wives' Club it was Edgar Allen Poe. In Crossing Washington Square it was Sylvia Plath, and of course in Out of the Shadows it's Mary Shelley. Why do you include these literary elements?
Joanne: I can't help it! Literature has always been my love, my inspiration, and my life. I have a PhD in literature and even when I moved from academia to fiction writing I never stopped reading, or reading about, books. I've enjoyed including these literary themes in my novels, both as a way to pay homage these writers but also as a way to keep their works alive, loved, and thought about.
Friendship by the Book is an occasional series of posts on The Friendship Blog about books that offer friendship lessons.
We’re basically your best friend… with better taste. Learn more