WWhen the American poet Louise Gluck won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy praised her for “giving a universal voice to individual existence through austere beauty”. They might add that she makes the individual female experience universal, adding it to the canon of male mythology, even her title makes it clear. The Seventh Age, from 2001 – a startling reflection on the fate of mankind – was preceded by Achilles’ Triumph (1985) and Ararat (1990), for example, and then Avernor (2005), in the traditional The entry point is named Go to Hell. While her earlier work explored family psychodrama, these books portrayed the emotional violence of middle age. Across 13 volumes of poetry and two volumes of prose, Glück’s emotional intelligence never succumbs to comfort, but the writing remains exquisite.
In her first published novel, none of that changes. Calendula and rose can be swallowed in one gulp, which is probably the best way to enter its tonal world, which has a strangely hypnotic effect, partly because the mood never fluctuates to violent intensity, partly because of the quality of Glück’s prose. Orderly Rhythm. Ten short chapters tell – though not in exact chronological order – about the first year of the lives of twin girls, eponymous marigolds and roses. During this time, their grandmother died and their mother tried to return to work, and they were “distracted, like all babies, by the feeling of victory. First crawling, then walking and climbing, then talking.”
Given its subject matter, the book might sound limited, even limited. As Gluck, it’s not that kind of thing. Instead, like her poetry, it derives its strength from keen observation. For example, in the final chapter, when the protagonists attend their first birthday celebration, “Marigold . The grown-ups were walking around… meanwhile, people they didn’t know were petting them and calling them lambs and chickens, even though they were clearly human babies. Aging human babies, Marigold thought.
It’s funny, in a sarcastic goth way. But the humor isn’t the end of the book. Readers familiar with Glück’s work will recall the laconic poetic diction she developed in her groundbreaking second collection, A House in the Marsh (1975), and her careful depictions of domestic life. As if to emphasize the similarity to her verse, each chapter of “Marigolds and Roses” is not divided into paragraphs, from one paragraph to another, but into linked blocks of text that appear in her In other works we refer to it as section. In fact, these blocks of text do work like discrete stanzas of a poem. Each acts as an elaborate freeze-frame in the story: juxtaposed, they resemble a frieze.
This style of writing subtly evokes the eternity of early childhood, actually infancy, before the child has settled into her own circadian rhythms. There is a sense of levitation, a life without past or future, which is a superpower of infancy: “There is day and night outside the fence. What do they add up to? Time is what they add up to… At the other end of time you Official life begins, which means it will end one day.”
All of this creates a subversive vision of adults imprisoned by time and language. Here, the author is at his most over-the-top, masking the babies’ subtle responses with complex language—even acknowledging that they don’t have such words. Indeed, by the end of the book only Rose has learned to speak: “Rose has felt like a tyrant since she started talking. Marigold is quieter than ever…studying the Alphabet Book for clues.” Obsessed with Realism Readers of , may find this tactic annoying, but it’s a way of exploring pre-infant language life without making it incoherent. And, after all, all fiction uses words to cover the hidden inner lives of others.
We gradually learned that Marigold was the smaller, frailer twin, also born second, and that the couple started life in an incubator. There are reflections on unity and individuation: pun intended, on their first birthday, identical twins wonder how they could “become one,” while they’ve “already been,” Marigold knows. Long ago, when they were an egg. ’ Ross is a gregarious extrovert, and ‘there are a lot of boxes for improvement that were ticked next to Marigold’s name.’ But the book doesn’t hang on to the twins’ enigmatic nature. Identical twin girls are more of a way of imagining two simultaneous versions of your (female) self.
The twins observe each other’s weaknesses and emerge victorious under the protection of their allies. Rose worries that Marigold is ignorant of the world. “And then, because she was, like her name, firm and true, she and her sister bonded as if they were one story, and mother and father were just witnesses.” There were tender examinations, one of which was being a writer. “Marigold is writing a book. Her inability to read is a handicap. Yet the book is taking shape in her head. Words will come later.” Artist as portrait of twin babies? I agree. We should be grateful for this perfect exploration of our many possibilities.