rev. of Unravelling by Elizabeth Graver

Issue #74
Winter 1997-98

A novel by Elizabeth Graver. Hyperion, $22.95 cloth. Reviewed by Caroline Langston.

In Elizabeth Graver’s quietly enchanting first novel,
Unravelling, the longings of the young narrator, Aimee Slater, are strikingly vivid and contemporary, yet the story is set in nineteenth-century New England, at the juncture between the region’s rural, puritanical past and all the glittering possibilities of its burgeoning industrialization.

Beginning with her exotic name picked by her mother from a magazine called
The Ladies’ Pearl Aimee Slater is different from her other siblings on the farm and the other young girls of her little New Hampshire town. Born in 1829, she is headstrong and intelligent, and as she enters puberty, she is  bored with the narrow opportunities offered her of housewifery and teaching; at the same time, she is pulled by a sexual desire that her mother tries by example and ominous admonition to repress. After a sexual encounter with her younger brother, an experience for which she has no language beside guilt to help her understand it, Aimee feels even further alienated from her mother and family, and from the brother who will no longer even speak to her.

Soon, however, the possibility of escape presents itself when Aimee learns of “Lowell, Massachusetts, the City of Spindles brick building after brick building, the flowers in their window boxes, the girls coming home after work by the canal, arm in arm.” Aimee is seduced by Lowell’s bright utopian promises of “education in a trade” and “sewing circles and learning circles,” but most of all by the prospect of independence. When an agent who recruits girls for one of the mills takes a liking to Aimee, she’s not so much attracted by the future as by wanting “to see that agent watching me again,” and after a struggle with her parents, she heads off for her new life.

But of course, Aimee finds life in Lowell less than utopian, with its regimented hours and slave-like mechanical labor, of which the novel is a careful document. In Lowell as well, Aimee’s desires for love and physical affection culminate in her involvement with a young man, William, who at first appears ideal. Graver contrasts perfectly Aimee’s characteristic need for the security he provides “I wanted to lie down inside his coat on the floor and sleep” to the nuances of her youthful passion, which Graver masterfully captures in lyrical language and specific detailing: “I looked down to see his hands covered with powdered sugar and pictured myself leaning over his hand, tasting the crannies between his fingers.”

Ultimately, though, Aimee’s awakening proves a disaster when she becomes pregnant and William refuses to marry her. She loses her baby twins to an adoption that her mother has arranged, and after returning to New Hampshire, she becomes a hermit in a hunting cabin, struggling to understand the circumstances that have brought her there. In time, she learns to recover through her own resources, and the love that has eluded her finally arrives in the person of the “town cripple” Amos; she literally stumbles over him in the forest and, significantly, helps him to clean his wounds. Through Amos, Aimee is able to resolve both the conflicts in herself and with her family. In Graver’s gentle hands, these timeless, familiar themes sparkle with authenticity and poignancy.

Caroline Langston’s stories have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize, New Stories from the South,
and elsewhere. She teaches literature at Rose Hill College.