Nora Jane by Ellen Gilchrist


Jane by Ellen Gilchrist

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Trade, 448 pages, 2005

Rating: 10/10

Reason for Reading: I was browsing around and noticed that

Gilchrist and a friend of mine share a hometown in Arkansas. Being the

reasonable sort, I’m happy to look at silly coincidences as a good reason to

read a book.

Synopsis: Nora Jane is a grouping of short stories about

the life of Nora Jane Harwood, as well as a new novella. With each story, we

see a new stage in Nora Jane’s life: her painful childhood, her rebellious

teenage years, and her still-unsettled adult life. The stories culminate with a novella featuring Nora Jane’s quirky family trying to cope with a life-threatening illness.

Why you should read this book: I’d kind of expected this to be a

slow read, but it proved me wrong – I’d say it’s one of my favourite reads

so far this year. Nora Jane progresses from a rebellious teenager to a responsible (but feisty) adult, and Gilchrist is really able to show the slow metamorphosis with her writing style and what she chooses to reveal about Nora Jane. Nora Jane and the other main characters are endearing in how real they are, which is definitely helped by Gilchrist never hesitating to put them in true-to-life situations, whether they’re heartening and uplifting or painfully sad. Nora Jane is literary without any pretentiousness – it’s just a great story that’s very well written. Be sure to check it out.

Why you should avoid this book: Nora Jane isn’t for the

thrill-seeker; it has its exciting moments but it’s definitely


Opening paragraph:

Nora Jane’s grandmother lived in a blue frame house on the

corner of Laurel and Webster streets. It was there that Nora Jane was happy.

There was a swing on the porch and a morning glory vine growing on a

trellis. In April azaleas bloomed all around the edges of the porch, white

and pink and red azaleas, blue morning glories, the fragrant white

Confederate jasmine, red salvia and geraniums and the mysterious elephant

ears, their green veins so like the ones on Nora Jane’s grandfather’s hands.

Nora Jane hated the veins because they meant her grandmother was old and

would die. Would die like her father had died, vanish, not be there anymore,

and then she would be alone with only her mother to live with seven days a


Fabulous quotes:

It was either that night that fertilized one of Nora Jane

Whittington’s wonderful, never to be replaced, or duplicated as long as the

species lasts, small, wet, murky, secret-bearing eggs. Or it was two nights

later when she heard a love song coming out an open doorway and broke down

and called Sandy Halter and he came and got her and they went off to a motel

and made each other cry.
Sandy was the boy Nora Jane had lived with in

New Orleans. She had come to California to be with him but there was a

mix-up and he didn’t meet her plane. Then she found out he’d been seeing a

girl named Pam. After that she didn’t love him anymore. Nora Jane was very

practical about love. She only loved people that loved her back. She never

was sure what made her call up Sandy that night in Berkeley. First she

dreamed about him. Then she passed a doorway and heard Bob Dylan singing,

‘Lay, lady lay. Lay across my big brass bed.’ The next thing she knew she

was in a motel room making love and crying. Nora Jane was only practical

about love most of the time. Part of the time she was just as dumb about it

as everybody else in the world.

Nieman went to the admissions office the next day and signed up

to audit Dante in Translation and Playwriting One. Then, suddenly, after a

night filled with dreams, he changed the classes to biochemistry and

Introduction to the Electron Microscope.
This was not an unbidden move.

For several years Nieman had become increasingly interested in science. He

had started reading books by physicists, especially Freeman Dyson. Physics

led to chemistry, which led to biology, which led to him, Nieman Gluuk, a

walking history of life on earth. Right there, in every cell in his body was

a whole amazing panorama that led to language and conscious


Also recommended: Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson;

The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor; The Romantic by

Barbara Gowdy; Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morrall.

Also by this author: In the Land of Dreamy Dreams; The

Annunciation; Victory Over Japan; Drunk with Love; Falling Through Space;

The Anna Papers; Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle; I Cannot Get You Close

Enough; Net of Jewels; Starcarbon; Anabasis; The Age of Miracles; Rhoda; The

Courts of Love; Sarah Conley; Flights of Angels; The Cabal and Other

Stories; Collected Stories; I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting with My


Fun tidbit: Gilchrist’s book Victory Over Japan won the National Book Award in 1984.

Would I read more by this author? I’ve added Victory Over

Japan to my TBR, so yes.

&#169 Lisa Yanaky 2003-2005

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