Monday, December 18, 2017

Book Review: "Our Lady of the Prairie" by Thisbe Nissen

"So much of this life we spend holding ourselves together, when all we're really looking for is someone who might undo us completely."

Theater professor Phillipa Maakestad is finally settling into her life. Married for years to fellow theater professor Michael, they struggled for years with their daughter, Ginny, who suffered from mental illness and drug addiction. But now Ginny has finally stabilized, and is set to marry a young man she has known since childhood.

And then, much to Phillipa's surprise, while teaching a semester in Ohio, she falls madly in love with another man—Lucius, a history professor. When they finally succumb to their passions, their affair consumes her. She can only think about being with Lucius, which is problematic, considering she needs to return to Iowa for Ginny's wedding. But how can she pretend that everything is fine, everything is the same, when absolutely everything has changed?

"What I won't back down from is this: Lucius and I met and we were a twister. We tried to keep ourselves apart, but some forces are too great. Some forces are beyond control."

Phillipa confesses her affair to Michael just before her return home, but they vow to keep up appearances for Ginny's sake. That should be easy, right? Well, Phillipa wasn't counting on a wedding-day tornado, Michael's strange request for getting revenge for her unfaithfulness, and her continually disapproving, obstinate mother-in-law, whom Phillipa thinks might have been a Nazi. It's more than any one person can handle, much less one already dealing with an intense love for another man.

Our Lady of the Prairie is a slightly zany, poignant, and periodically frustrating look at one woman who decides the best way to deal with her midlife crisis is just to let everything around her implode, whether intentionally or accidentally. It's a story about being caught between the life you want and the life you're obligated to. It's also the story of how when we try so hard not to hurt anyone we often wind up hurting everyone, including ourselves.

Thisbe Nissen does a terrific job in painting a portrait of a woman who was so deliberate through so much of her life that when she finally throws a little caution to the wind, the results are disastrous. Phillipa has spent so much time taking care of her daughter, her husband, her mother-in-law, even her students, but she doesn't really know how to take care of herself, or even understand that she, too, is worthy of happiness of her own. She's not the most sympathetic character but you understand many of the choices she makes, and given what she has dealt with in her life, you may wonder if she's entitled.

Parts of this book had me laughing aloud, and parts had me tearing up. It's set in the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election, when the country was divided in its feelings about George W. Bush, and Nissen captured that mood well.

There were, however, some threads of the story I just didn't understand the point of, particularly Phillipa's belief that her mother-in-law was a Nazi. Any time she interacted with Bernadette, the story lost its appeal, and there's an overly long section in which Phillipa imagines she's living Bernadette's life which almost made me stop reading the book. In the end, I didn't feel that Nissen even resolved this part of the story, so I definitely could have done without it.

I've never read anything Nissen has written, but I was utterly taken by her storytelling and her ear for dialogue. There's a lot to this book, but it's a fascinating, emotional, and often-humorous look at one woman's life in the midst of crisis after crisis (many which are self-inflicted), and you wonder just where Phillipa will end up. It's a little wacky, but it has a lot of heart.

NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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