On Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking

19Dec08

In which The Gay Recluse writes a book report.

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Just as the snow began, we finished Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking, a 2007 debut novel by Aoibheann Sweeney. The book is about a girl — Miranda — who grows up with her father on a tiny island off the coast of Maine; her mother died when she was an infant and her father spends most of his time translating Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Given that the characters are loosely inspired by The Tempest, Sweeney presents us with a very compelling juxtaposition between what superficially appears to be a slender “coming-of-age” story and the heavy-duty literature that resonates through the work; in short, reading this is like going to a restaurant where the chef has successfully transformed a traditional boring dish into something surprisingly light and delicious, so that the second you finish one bite, you already want another.

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The book is “gay” from pretty much the first page to the last, but in a way that recalls early 20th century writers such as Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather, i.e., it’s most often a subtext or perhaps even a viewpoint, and so never descends into the more tedious trappings of genre fiction. There is a lyrical quality to the writing — and ultimately the themes of love and truth — that transcends the need to apply the kind of labels — gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc. — that so often seep out of the political arena into art with such unfortunate consequences. Sweeney gives us a story, and though she deftly deconstructs (and adheres to) any number of gay stereotypes, her characters always feel more like people than statements.

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The story is not complicated; Miranda finishes high school and her father helps to get her an internship for the summer in New York City; while there, she meets a boy she likes well enough but for whom she feels increasing ambivalence as she concurrently falls in love with a Dominican girl from Washington Heights.(!) From a very young age, Miranda understands that she is an outsider, and the suspense of the book relates to her gradual understanding of exactly why. We are drawn through this process by Sweeney’s amazing ability to infuse small and often awkward moments — attending a party, flirting with a stranger, making stiff dinner conversation, getting lost in the city — with poetic insight and mystery.

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That she ultimately finds herself — in both literal and metaphorical senses of the expression — in Washington Heights is something we not only appreciated but understood, particularly today, when the snow fell on all of us, equally.



2 Responses to “On Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking”

  1. The Tempest, Washington Heights and gay-dom? Sounds too interesting a mix to miss. Thanks!

  2. ahhhh, you brought me back to 164 and Broadway. Sometimes I miss seeing that helicopter that hung over the awning at the local grocer (does it still hang??) or the carniceria where they had the most amazing meat for prices so low I was convinced it was a front, or the laundry lady who just adored suckling on her glazed chicken feet, like lollipops. That neighborhood had the most real people I met in Manhattan, no pretense or guile. Viva El Washington Heights. The book sounds equally delicious. I’ll have to add it to my winter reading list. Enjoy the Snow.


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