Reviewed: The Member of the Wedding
by Carson McCullers
Whether staring at a blank sheet of papyrus or a new Word document, writers throughout the ages have always sought that elusive opening sentence that’ll convince their audience to read on. And from Homer on through Hemingway there has been a noticeable correlation between great books and great beginnings. Nick Caraway’s lonesome, world-weary introduction intrigues us enough to reread The Great Gatsby with regularity. If you're a patient and strong enough reader to make it through the first two sentences that make up the opening paragraph of Absalom, Absalom!, you know that you're in for a dusty, ghost-filled tale told by an inimitable master.
“It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old” might sound like an innocuous lead, but the sentences that follow it in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding are as memorable and exceptional as either of the aforementioned classics. “This was the summer,” McCullers continues, “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.”
While the rest of the paragraph (and the novel, really) goes on as mellifluously as prose possibly can, it's with these first four simple, declarative sentences that McCullers perfectly establishes protagonist, conflict, and mood. Like watching a painter make the initial brushstrokes that will soon become a portrait of someone we recognize, Frankie Addams is instantaneously a character (about to turn thirteen, disjointed and scared) with whom we can all somehow relate. But even if the gawky experience of late adolescence is collective, the connection between the author and her character make things far more vivid and interesting than the average growing-up-can-be-rough narrative.
So much like her stories and novels, Carson McCullers’s life was impressive, melancholic, and too soon over. She was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, in 1917 and studied to become a pianist, although by nineteen she had published her first story and, as practically every one of her dust-jackets notes, released her most famous novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at only twenty-three. Most of her work was done before she had reached thirty-one years old, by which time a series of strokes had paralyzed the left side of her body. In 1967, after years of illnesses worsened by alcoholism, Carson McCullers passed away from a brain hemorrhage at age fifty.
Completed in her late twenties, The Member of the Wedding draws not only from the growing pains that we’ve all gone through, be it for just a summer or for a couple years, but seems to be informed by the personal hardships McCullers had endured, too. For a twelve-year-old, there is little separating outstanding from different and still less to delineate the different from the weird. Without getting too deep into biographical psychoanalysis, one can imagine that young Lula Carson Smith, a talented musician and author-to-be, was noticeable amongst her peers in Columbus.
Frankie, too, stands out when all she wants to do is fit in. “She was five feet and three quarter inches tall, and she wore a number seven shoe,” making her an easy target for ridicule amongst the smaller-sized and smaller-minded. “If she reached her height on her eighteenth birthday,” the narrator goes on, “she had five and one sixth growing years ahead of her.” Frankie is able to fancifully deduce that “[t]herefore, according to mathematics…she would grow to be over nine feet tall.” Unable to recognize the absurdity of her own conclusion, Frankie is left asking “what would be a lady who is over nine feet high? She would be a freak.” While she might not be as outwardly gifted as her prodigy creator, the glimpses we get into Frankie’s quick (though often misguided) mind suggest a bright, burgeoning personality that's currently preoccupied with the uncertainty and fear of what leaving childhood behind will entail.
As the title denotes, there is a wedding at the heart of this novel. Frankie “knew that her only brother, Jarvis, was to be married. He had become engaged to a girl in Winter Hill just before he went to Alaska.” Frankie had not seen her brother since she was ten years old and clearly missed him dearly: “his face had become masked and changing, like a face seen under water.” While she’s happy that her brother is back and getting married, it’s that first word of the book’s title that winds up getting Frankie into trouble, as she confuses being a mere attendee with being an actual participant.
When precocious Frankie opts to become sophisticated F. Jasmine so that the opening syllable of her name can match up with brother Jarvis and his fiancée Janice, you can sense the staggering disappointment that her creative powers are leading her toward. But even if a fantasy life with the happily married couple is preposterous, untenable, and plenty strange, the thought process behind the dream is nothing short of heartbreaking. Through a series of complex realizations, F. Jasmine quickly discovers that Jarvis and Janice “are the we of me,” meaning:
all the twelve years of her life, she had only been Frankie. She was an I person who had to walk around and do things by herself. All other people had a we to claim, all except her.... Now all this was suddenly over with and changed. There was her brother and the bride, and it was as though when first she saw them she had known inside of her: they are the we of me.
But what’s poignant isn’t that the eccentric plan fails to pan out—that much we can all expect from the instant it's first revealed. Rather, what makes this and the whole of The Member of the Wedding such a tragedy is the commonality of the times we don't know who we are, where we belong, or what we're supposed to be doing. While all of these concerns are definitely not limited to our middle-school years, they are so well described here by McCullers that you can't help but agonize. And as an observer, powerless to console or reassure, you truly suffer alongside young Frances Addams and begin to develop the same feelings of impotence and helplessness that weigh her down throughout the story.
There are so many other praiseworthy elements of The Member of the Wedding that, here at my conclusion, it's far easier (and perfectly accurate) to call it a faultless book. The writing is effortlessly engaging and imbued with a discerning, understated poetry—a thing to be envied by writers and enjoyed by readers. The Member of the Wedding really is fiction at its best, helping us to get past the superficial and rediscover how many of our experiences, good or bad, are shared. If we can marvel at what Keats did with his twenty-five years on earth or write speculative praise about what John Kennedy Toole might have done based on his one complete novel, I see no reason why we shouldn't better acknowledge how eminently special Carson McCullers’s fleeting years of productivity were and how much her work has to offer us today.