The 1980s were a time of glittery prosperity and optimism in America. We were a society tuned into "Dallas" and "Dynasty" and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," although most of us were working hard to make ends meet. Looking back we can see the excess and the darkness just beneath the rich and shiny surface. It was then that the AIDS epidemic came into our collective consciousness, and into our hospitals and homes. Mary Gaitskill, author of BAD BEHAVIOR and other acclaimed fiction, explores the gritty places in '80s culture in her latest novel VERONICA and finds, beneath the glamour, loneliness and sickness as well as the hope of salvation.
The protagonist and narrator of VERONICA is Alison. As an aimless and disaffected teenager Alison runs away from home and heads to edgy San Francisco. She lives in a world of drugs and casual sex and is discovered by a seedy photographer and transformed into a fashion model. Soon she is in front of the camera in Paris. Her fast-paced life may seem enviable, but it is really empty and soul-numbing. Alison's success in Paris lasts only as long as her affair with an influential man, and when it is over she finds herself in New York working as a temp and half-heartedly trying to revive her modeling career.
It is in New York where she meets Veronica, a kooky, abrasive, middle-aged proofreader with eccentric taste and an abusive boyfriend. Despite, or perhaps because of, their obvious differences, Alison and Veronica become friends. Over the years the two emotionally damaged women find solace in each other's company even though they often seem at odds with each other. Veronica's struggle with AIDS further complicates their relationship, but Alison remains loyal to her. And, as Alison starts to realize, the two are not as different as they appear.
The story is told in the course of one day. Alison is now middle-aged herself and sick with hepatitis. Veronica has been dead for years, but her memory is like a ghost haunting Alison or perhaps like the refrain of a song stuck in her head. As Alison works, now as a maid for an old friend, her thoughts repeatedly turn to her past, to the lessons she has learned, to those she is still learning, and especially to Veronica. Alison questions who she is, if she is no longer beautiful, and how her experiences have shaped her. She thinks about how she wants to spend the rest of her life; what she learned from Veronica's life and death force her to rethink her other relationships, especially with her family.
VERONICA is a dark novel, yet not really pessimistic. Gaitskill's narrative voice is complex and unique, but not always easily readable. Alison is often hard to like, but she is always brutally honest with herself as she confronts the life she has made. VERONICA is ultimately about beauty and redemption; the short-lived and fragile exterior kind of beauty, and the rare and valuable interior kind. It is about a formerly physically beautiful woman's journey to self-worth and spiritual beauty. It is only once Alison moves beyond physical beauty as a category that she can find redemption, and Veronica is --- in her own flawed and human way --- the redeemer.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 24, 2011