Monday, October 5, 2015

Joanna and Ulysses by May Sarton (Book Review)

Photo Credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis
This is the first time I read Sarton, outside of her widely anthologized essay, "The Rewards of Living a Solitary Life." This short novel, only about 120 pages, reads like a dramatization of Sarton's thesis from that essay: "Alone we can afford to be wholly whatever we are, and to feel whatever we feel absolutely. That is a great luxury!"
The plot line is what struck me: an Athenian 30 year old woman, post World War II, takes a solo painting trip to Santorini and adopts a dying and abused donkey (Ulysses). She paints and cares for the donkey, spending much time alone, discovering who she is. Thinking about it now, I should have been turned off by the plot; it sounds a lot like "Eat, Pray, Love" or something cliché like that. I guess I was drawn to her motivation; she, unlike the protagonist from Gilbert's work, has undergone a great tragedy-- losing her mother to the Nazis, and caring for her depressed and emotionally disconnected father. 
I enjoyed the simple and honest writing for the first 8 chapters, but there were some spots that felt contrived: her meeting with the young and handsome donkey driver, some conversations with the young boy on the island (that ultimately catapults her into consciousness of self), but especially her knowledge that she is going to find herself in chapter 1 even before she steps off the boat: "Listen, sky! Listen, gulls and sea, I am Joanna! Joanna, the painter!" (13).
I rolled my eyes, but the writing flows quickly, so I read on. 
Once chapter 9 arrives, and Joanna must introduce herself (her real self) to her father, everything changes. While the predictability is still there, the writing is much more symbolic and sewn together so naturally: "Joanna felt she was sitting down to eat lunch with a stranger, but whether that stranger was herself, her old self, her Papa, looking so old and frail and tired, she could not decide" (108). Also: "It was her real life coming back again, a life in which just keeping alive took all one's time and energy and the important things got put off, always put off" (109). Joanna, once home, must grapple with exposing her real and true self to the people she's been pretending for all her life, so things got more interesting. 
(I'm wondering if this story is more appropriate as a short story.)
What results in the last two chapters is great but simple writing, and my favorite line is when her father asks her if she is in love (112) because she is acting so strangely. Joanna, of course, really does have a new love, but it is her true self, and she is enjoying her freedom.
The last line of the novel and how it all wraps up is a bit too "happy-go-lucky" for my taste, and I think that is the only negative factor of the novel; the most interesting parts are when Joanna is battling between her old and new self, and when there is no battle, it's a bit too "rainbows and sunshine". I do, however, enjoy that Joanna uses creation (painting) as a means to find her true self and ultimately reaches out to others to help her personal journey along, something I think is unrealistically missing in a lot of pieces about the joys and benefits of solitude.
Probably, I'm used to the ambiguously destructive endings of Kate Chopin's characters that end up dying after meeting their true selves.
I think I like Joanna and Ulysses' ending better.


Works Cited
Sarton, May. Joanna and Ulysses. W.W. Norton& Co. 1963. Print.

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