When I was pregnant with my first child, I took a solo visit to the San Diego Zoo. I stood in front of the black panther’s enclosure and tried get the attention of the big cat perched on an overhang. I used what I knew about house cats and turned my head partially away and looked at the panther through the narrow slits of my half-closed eyelids. It worked; the panther looked at me with great interest. Soon he and I were locked in an intense stare, each clearly aware of the other’s existence in that moment.
The big cat’s attention and the fact of the baby growing in my belly both made me feel important and chosen. They felt connected in some way.
One of the trio of zoo visitors a little closer to the enclosure said, “I wouldn’t want to be the person that panther’s staring at.” The others laughed in agreement and looked over their shoulders to follow the panther’s gaze. They stopped laughing when they saw me. They moved on soon after.
I thought of this experience while reading about the tiger’s wife. She was an outcast whose connection to a big cat brought her a sense of importance and belonging. She still stood apart from the people around her but now it was for different reasons than those that usually set her apart.
When I was ten years old, my family moved from California to Ohio, from the Navy bases with which I’d grown familiar to an Air Force base that seemed alien. Accustomed to the semi-outdoor building style of California, I couldn’t get the hang of navigating hallways that were inside of buildings and I continually found myself lost inside my school building. The disorientation I felt extended to the social interactions of my peers, which left me feeling shut out and confused. For several years I harbored a fantasy of being discovered by a modeling agency, which would be proof that there was something of value in me that my peers couldn’t see. If I couldn’t fit in, I could at least be set apart in a way that would show them how wrong they were not to accept me.
Gradually, I realized that, despite my recurrent dreams of being stretched taller in my sleep, I was unlikely to wake up one morning leggy and willowy. The “discovered as a model” fantasy morphed into one about publishing a novel. I wrote my first novel when I was 12. It was about a girl born somewhere in the middle of a family of twelve children who did something about which she was so ashamed that she shut herself in some hidden room in her family’s rambling old house and eventually got scurvy because she neglected to take any citrus fruits with her when she hid herself. With such a compelling plotline, I was certain I would have a novel published by the time I was 16. When that didn’t happen, it was sure to happen by the time I finished undergrad. Then by the time I turned 30. Now maybe by the time my kids go to college?
The “famous author” fantasy has weakened with the knowledge that if I don’t write a novel and I’m too afraid to submit anything, there’s not much chance of being published. But it’s not faded enough that I can read critically acclaimed books by authors my age and younger without some mixed feelings.
Téa Obreht is two years younger than my baby brother and here she has this epic, half-mythical story that has drawn me in and left me pondering the nature of the stories that make up our lives. She writes about the tales that we construct around events so that they make sense to us and give our lives purpose and meaning. She writes about recurrent themes, the threads of meaning that run through our lives. Her book approaches (but doesn’t quite reach) the level of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (the title of which I always say in Spanish when I say it out loud because I think it sounds cooler. It probably just makes me sound like a prig, but I can’t seem to help myself).
In spite of the way I’m going on, The Tiger’s Wife isn’t a perfect book. The jumping around in time gets confusing in places and the revelation at the crossroads is decidedly anticlimactic, but there are so many little interwoven tales and so much meaning beneath them that the book is really a pleasure to read throughout. I feel like I’m sitting in front of a fire hearing tales from my own grandfather or from a travel-worn journeyer with whom I’ve crossed paths, a feeling that is difficult to reconcile with the non-gray hair and unlined face in Obreht’s author photo.
I look at her picture on the back flap of her book, and I kind of want to hate her, but I can’t. She wrote an impressive book. She found an agent and published her impressive book. I’ve done neither, even though I’ve had almost a decade longer to do so than she has. So I can’t really hate her. Instead, I just feel morose about my own ineffectual longing for something that is entirely within my power to realize. Of course, I know that neither hatred nor moroseness (nor even longing) is going to help me reach this dream. I need to either work toward it or give it up.
Or I guess I could just keep writing about it in book reviews until I get sick of talking about it.