This is a novel about abuse, memory and love. It’s also about redemption, forgiveness – and hate. It’s a mother-daughter story. The mother in question is a victim of sexual abuse, and the daughter in question is a rebellious adolescent, so the conflicts are incendiary and the resolution is dramatic.
Veronica is a successful English professor who has made a comfortable life for herself and her teenaged daughter, Grace, after the death of her husband. Or so she would like to think. But both Veronica and Grace are verbally skilled and they spar constantly, using three- and four-syllable words to cut each other down. Veronica is often alone with memories of her harrowing childhood with an alcoholic, passive mother and a stepfather who abused her, first only by his laziness, neglect and general nastiness, then, when Veronica was old enough, sexually. This led Veronica to abuse herself as a young woman Grace’s age, by letting men do whatever they wanted to her as long as it took her away from the home she thought of only as “that house.”
Knowing none of this, Grace resents the fact that Veronica has never taken her to meet her grandparents. And Grace, a budding feminist, feels disdain for her mother’s prissy ways, her moral lectures, not knowing that they are based on harrowing, horrible experience.
This is a book that recognizes the maddening fact that teenagers, no matter how intelligent and how well guided, often do stupid things, and that women, no matter how caring and wise, can fail to dispense their wisdom because of the unhealthy but possibly unavoidable tendency to repress ugly, self-destructive memories.
Here is how Grace sees Veronica:
Grace realized the source from which her aversion came. It was…the woman’s insistence that everyone conform to her conception of morality, her definition of what it meant to be right and true and just and good.
Here is how Veronica sees Grace:
…”I hate you,” she said flatly…
“Right now, I hate you too,” Veronica rejoined succinctly, reverberating her daughter’s hatred.
Like a ghost, Grace was gone.
Despite sixteen years of love and attention from two doting parents, despite her ability to buy what she wanted, despite her ability to come home to a place that she didn’t have to call “that house”, Grace had actively chosen to be unhappy, to behave as if everything was against her.
Intelligent parents of intelligent teens will recognize these battle lines.
Jocelyn Crawley is a prize-winning writer searching for fresh ways to explore timeless ideas, and Erudition is her first novel. At times, she uses so many long words that the reader cries out for a few simple ones, but as one reads more deeply, one realizes that this somewhat stilted means of expression mirrors the thinking processes of Veronica and Grace. In times of stress, Veronica plays words games in her mind as a defensive measure, and Grace pushes her grasp of social issues to the fore as a kind of taunt; mother and daughter use words as banners, as weapons, and as a shield to block out what they don’t want to hear, don’t want to remember.
The definition of “erudition” is “profound, scholarly knowledge.” Grace, through her study of feminism, and Veronica, through her study of the classics of English literature, are erudite. But the knowledge they need, the sharing of the syllabus of life, is what is missing, until the dramatic conclusion of this taut, well-paced novel. In the end, Veronica and Grace will stop self-destructing and attempting to hack each other down to size, and will get on with lives that can safely include a respectful daughter, a giving mother.