Our Lady of the Prairie
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018)
In Our Lady of the Prairie, Thisbe Nissen’s rambunctious and roving new novel (her third), Nissen weaves several disparate narratives into what she calls a “crazy quilt” of a novel—emphasis on “crazy.” While, at times, following the varied narratives of her sometimes difficult-to-like characters can be a challenge, this novel ultimately finds redemption by dramatizing her central idea that we create ourselves through the stories we tell about ourselves.
Phillipa is a fifty-something academic who has lost interest in her teaching and in her long-time marriage to fellow academic Michael. Her affair with an older—and much more successful—male academic (Lucius) leads to significant melodrama. The novel opens with Phillipa’s decision to tell her husband about the affair, a confession that turns out to be incredibly ill-timed and disastrous, as Phillipa and Michael are about to attend their daughter Ginny’s wedding. In order to make some kind of matrimonial peace so that they may attend this wedding together, Phillipa, a self-identifying feminist liberal, submits herself to her husband’s “punishment” for infidelity: an extended and abusive spanking session that leaves her bruised and in serious pain.
The drama and complications get turned up even more when it is revealed that Ginny has lifelong mental health issues and that her wedding to an “ex”-Amish man (Silas) is almost ruined when a tornado destroys the church (called Our Lady of the Prairie) in which they plan to hold the ceremony. Set in 2004, the novel also offers a fairly frenetic look at the run-up to the Kerry-Bush campaign, for which Phillipa works. Add to this mix an unwanted pregnancy, as well as Phillipa’s increasing suspicion that her mother-in-law may or may not have been a Nazi, which may or may not be fueled by Lucius’s academic research and published work focused on French Nazi-collaborators.
Using the tornado, then, as a metaphor for Phillipa’s life choices, as well as her daughter Ginny’s mental instability and even the political state of the country, Nissen, though laudably ambitious, may be trying to fit too much into one novel. Throughout the three hundred fifty plus pages, Phillipa goes from being a clearly privileged white academic with a good job, relatively good marriage, and a nice home to being a woman who spends most of her time living at the Gas Stop motel, drinking at its dive bar, and pining for her lover Lucius. Although an attractive and well-educated fifty-something, she often seems less capable of managing her own life than the lower-class working women she encounters, yet she is quick to judge them.
Which brings up the issue of class in this novel. While the Amish characters are presented respectfully, the same cannot be said of the treatment of the less privileged men and women Phillipa comes into contact with. In one scene, Phillipa takes it upon herself to drive a young working-class single mother to a polling place. The woman’s living situation is described without compassion; her baby is described as “dull,” and Phillipa suggests the child’s name, Travis, is “a name destined for the meth den.” Perhaps Nissen is suggesting that Phillipa’s dismissiveness of working-class whites even while she is campaigning for Kerry can be seen in a broader frame as a part of just what is wrong with American politics, but it’s difficult to read this intent with Phillipa as our guide.
While we feel compassion for her family’s struggle with mental illness, Phillipa’s interactions with her troubled daughter Ginny are fraught and often leave the reader feeling ambivalence, if not contempt, for both women: the selfishness each exhibits is extreme, and it's difficult to side with either—although this struggle is a central part of the plot.
Phillipa’s long suffering husband Michael could perhaps be seen as one of the more likeable characters in the novel if not for his opening salvo—physically and repeatedly pummeling his wife’s naked body in revenge for her infidelity. His patience with his mother, Bernadette, redeems him; although, this seems a tolerance borne more out of fear than love or understanding. Bernadette is a fairly appalling human being: she is bitter, angry, refuses to be civil to her daughter-in-law and to the attendants at her nursing home; and finally, because they can take her behavior no more, she is evicted and forced to move to her son’s basement.
It’s not long after this move that Phillipa tells us she has tried to “solve the mystery” of her mother-in-law's identity. Convinced Bernadette was a Nazi-collaborator, Phillipa creates an extended false narrative focused on Bernadette’s history. This novella within the novel appears as a sort of disconnected dream sequence with little connective tissue to link it with the main narrative. Phillipa is passed out on a flight back from visiting her lover in Paris, dreams herself into a plane crash, and then the reader must struggle to switch narrative frames and follow a story of Bernadette trying to survive as a girl and then a young woman in occupied France. There is a rape scene followed by other typically brutal scenes with Nazi soldiers, until finally Bernadette is alone, the Allies arrive, and now pregnant she begins regularly sleeping with Allied soldiers in an attempt to trick one of them into marriage. One young American marries her, takes her home, discovers he can’t have been the father, and this then is how Bernadette becomes a bitter single mother and why Michael does not know his own true surname. While this section can be seen as an extended exploration of the narratives we create about ourselves, it also sits as a loosely connected section in an already “crazy quilt” of a book. Phillipa makes no attempt to explain her “dream” narrative, and we have to guess at any resolution or veracity.
In the final section of the book, Phillipa campaigns for Kerry—mainly because her daughter Ginny, obsessed with the Kerry-Bush election, is too sick with her pregnancy to get out of bed. While campaigning, Phillipa also descends into a bizarre world of regular drinkers at the Gas Stop bar, freaks out repeatedly on the phone to her lover, and reminisces about her life with her soon-to-be former husband. This is all while attempting to guide a student summer production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Yet, while some of these narrative details can drag the book down somewhat, there are also stunningly beautiful moments in this novel, particularly those sections focused on a young “shamed” Amish single mother (Eula), as well as Nissen’s poignant handling of the relationship between Ginny and her young husband Silas, as they visit the NICU when their baby is born prematurely. And yet some of that rich and moving storyline gets crowded out by Phillipa’s self-involvement, her strange fantasies, and her privileged view of the world; it’s difficult for these other elegant, compelling narratives to compete. Where Nissen succeeds most is in capturing the frenetic energy of a woman whose life is out of control, the desperation of a parent whose life has been spent caring for a mentally ill child, and the ways women punish themselves—through inappropriate relationships and a refusal to see a world where happiness does not have to be defined by men.