rev. of The Paper Anniversary by Joan Wickersham

Issue #61
Fall 1993

The Paper Anniversary 
A novel by Joan Wickersham. Viking, $21.00
cloth. Reviewed by Katherine Min.

In her first novel,
The Paper Anniversary, Joan Wickersham writes beautifully and with excruciating honesty about marriage, the sublime and the mundane of conjugal affection, and conjugal brutality. One of the astonishments of the book is the way both partners, Maisie and Jack, are rendered fully and independently, with an even sympathy that allows them their weaknesses Maisie’s self-absorption and need for drama; Jack’s uncommunicativeness and passivity at the same time revealing their greater hopes and more admirable natures.

It begins in trouble. Maisie is living in New York with friends, working as an editorial assistant at a publishing company, while Jack stays in Maine, in the small town where he grew up, to tend his family’s ailing french fry factory. Their physical separation soon leads to an emotional one, and Jack, unable to deal with the fickleness of Maisie’s affections, finds himself getting involved with Laura, a woman who allows him “the freedom to be dull.” Maisie, chafing at her perception of marriage as a narrowing of possibility and the death of passion, realizes it is Jack she wants only when it looks like he has moved beyond her.

It is a long way back from the brink, and the novel spares us none of the pain and bad behavior along the way. Wickersham writes precise, luminous prose capable of great subtlety, humor, and heartbreaking lyricism. Her descriptions are vivid and distinctive, her insights stunningly accurate. In bed with Laura, Jack recalls something Maisie had once said about their cat, Egg. ” ‘Don’t you think he makes all other cats look wrong?’ And he wondered, after all his years of staring at Maisie: How long would it take him to get to the point where all other women, even Laura, didn’t look wrong?”

Minor characters are memorably drawn: Laura, strong and serene, at ease paddling a canoe or crimping a pie crust, with a self-reliance born of low expectation; Dunnane, the man Maisie briefly, and disastrously, dates, a would-be Horatio Alger, hot-headed and vulgar, full of wild theories and insecurity; Caterina, Maisie’s best friend, maternal, aloof, as controlled as Maisie is reckless, keeping her problems to herself rather than spilling them out as Maisie does.

The novel as a whole paints an intimate portrait of a marriage that is as specific as it is universal. Like all of us, Maisie and Jack are admirable and flawed, struggling with their own issues and limitations and, out of their wisdom and their folly, somehow managing to forge a relationship and a life together. Like a pitcher with pinpoint control, Wickersham consistently throws strikes, moving high and low, inside and out, painting the corners, arriving again and again at truth with devastating accuracy.
The Paper Anniversary is eloquent about the things we cannot explain, even, and perhaps especially, to those we love the most, those we have chosen to love. It is about the extreme risk of deep romantic feeling and the heroic but problematic surrendering of our protective armor; it is about the tenuous, tenacious bond of lifelong commitment.

Katherine Min’s fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Glimmer Train
, and other magazines. A new story is forthcoming in TriQuarterly
. She has recently completed a novel, Stealing the View.