The Resurrection of Joan Ashby: A Novel

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“A stunning debut novel. The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas encompasses a wealth of superb writing, mature insights, and breathtaking risks . . .”

A stunning debut novel. The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas encompasses a wealth of superb writing, mature insights, and breathtaking risks. Joan Ashby emerges as a substantial and realistic character; you can scarcely believe this is a feat of fiction and not biography. The book is not without some minor flaws—a kitschy ending, too many interruptions to the narrative with extraneous material, and some less than credible synchronistic events.

But even these glitches cannot mar the impact and power of the novel.

Wolas places under the microscope and through decades the nuances and expectations of marriage, where two people who love one another yet never truly know each other, gradually grow into two different people. She also microscopically examines motherhood and parent-child bonds.

Joan Ashby, in her early twenties was a rising, celebrated author of two international, bestselling short story collections. Since girlhood she had plotted the path of lifelong authorship: “Read great literature every day. Write every day. Rewrite every day. Avoid crushes and love. Do not entertain any offer of marriage. Never ever have children. Never allow anyone to get in my way.”

Surprising herself Joan falls in love with a handsome eye surgeon, Martin Manning, and marries him once he promises to never to ask her to bear children. Yet she soon falls pregnant and agonizes: “If she had this baby, it meant a second baby, Joan understood that now; the only discussion would be one of timing. Martin would want to create a foundation of family, Manning children . . . The opposite of how Joan lived her life, the opposite of what she required for her work. She knew other women managed both, had for centuries. But most of those women desired motherhood . . . she did not want motherhood, had no underlying faith in her ability to negotiate the enormity of the obligation, had no interest in the supposed majesty of the experience.”

Daniel is born and to her surprise, Joan falls in love with him, dotes on him, and gives up writing (despite her publisher’s admonishments) to tend to him. A strange, young woman, Fancy, enters their lives as Daniel’s nanny. She and Joan bond, and as Joan leaves her writing life behind, she embraces young motherhood, all the commitments of domestic life, and together with Fancy sets up flower and vegetable gardens, orchards and glens on the Manning four-acre property. Several years later Eric is born and mothering him proves to be much more difficult for Joan; she does not bond with this baby as she has with Daniel. Eric is born with an independent streak.

The narrative takes a darker twist when—years later—11-year-old Daniel, a voracious and advanced reader, who has been writing stories about a squirrel named Henry that garners his parents’ praise and pulls the mother-son bond ever tighter, suddenly discovers that his mother is a famous writer. The fact that she hid this part of her life from him, never said a word about her writing, is a shock that ends his burgeoning promise to follow on her path, and strains their bond. This sin of omission (for which she has a well thought through rationale) sets in motion a series of events that a decade later will shatter Joan’s life.

The Manning family is brilliant: Joan the fêted writer; Martin, a pioneer in eye surgery practices that he shares internationally; Daniel, venture capitalist and graduate of Wharton Business School; and Eric, the child Joan could never truly connect with, who drops out of school at 13 when his computer coding skills lead to the creation of a start-up hi-tech company that he sells and at age 22 is a billionaire.

In Wolas’ pages, Joan’s fully embodied motherhood, despite her ambiguous doubts about her role, are brilliantly accurate. Every mother who has sacrificed her ambition and talents for motherhood will find she is reading about herself. Every husband and wife whose marriage is torn apart will gain new perspectives from reading this novel. Every adult child who wonders about their parents’ relationship to one another and to themselves and their siblings will find a mirror shard here.

After a major bombshell blows the family apart, Joan leaves the Manning home in the Virginia suburbs and heads alone to Dharmashala, India, a place and country that has long fascinated her. Here she works hard to reclaim her shattered sense of self: “She is returning to her own beginning, in solitude, writing away—does she want to alter the rhythm, the joy she is at last experiencing again? Her engrained instinct is to keep everything to herself, to keep the facets of her world separated. Like a port-wine birthmark staining the skin over her heart—even if she could remove the mark, laser it away somehow, it would leave behind an outline, a ghost of what she was born into, of the child she became, of the adult who emerged from the ice and flames.”

On one of her excursions into the Himalayan foothills Joan climbs into a temple dug and shaped deep in the rock in the eighth century. She finds herself overcome by the chiseled perfection of the innermost sanctum. She kneels in the stone temple and asks what is she doing precisely:

“Working in words, trying to hurtle herself into her future, undecided about whether, or how extensive, an amputation of her own life is required? She is kneeling in this stone temple, thinking how hard stone is, how it endures for eternity, and when she rises, she knows she is not prepared to leave this remarkable Indian world, not ready to step back into the small world of Virginia, to be with Martin.”

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby is a remarkable achievement. Cherise Wolas is deserving of the laudatory praise her novel is receiving. A rare book such as this comes along only once in a long while.

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This week I find myself in the north-east kingdom of Vermont at a retreat center near St. Johnsbury. Over the almost thirty years since I came to this country with my American born husband and South African born children, I have stayed every several years somewhere in the Green Mountain state. Together with the Pacific northwest I find it to be the most beautiful and, dare I use the word, spiritual, of all the states in our presently troubled Union. Lush shades of green everywhere and from here, now, where I look from my porch when I raise my head from my laptop, I see a valley of grasses and bushes, a line of magnificent trees, tops of mountains and a blue sky traversed by slowly moving cloud galleons. Yesterday on a short walk across the fields (beware of ticks) I saw a groundhog, a woodchuck, and a doe. Nothing remarkable, except they were not scared, they did not run off until I could almost touch them, and that is unusual. The perfectly sculptured doe stared back at me with queenly curiosity. Even the monarch butterfly stayed motionless so I could take a photograph, as well as a black, white and blue beauty called The White Admiral.

My retreat cabin measures seven by nine feet, scarcely room to fit a single bed. It has many small shelves, a desk that folds away and drawers under the bed. It reminds of a small yacht cabin carefully designed to make use of all the space. I have electricity and an internet connection but no plumbing. The outdoor privy, thirty feet from the cabin, opens to the fields and the sky, the world is mine. This is like camping in a thin wooden and not a canvas shell (or whatever the modern hi-tech tent material is called).

Essentially I am here to write, and delighted to have this time and this space. It is so important for me to immerse myself in my rewriting, to come to know my characters and their story, as if they are here with me.

Yet like Transcendentalist Thoreau, who after a session in his cabin or a walk in the woods at Walden Pond, would return home to Concord for lunch; I enjoy going to the main house to take my meals with the hard-working and friendly staff. We have a young chef who creates wholesome and delicious vegetarian meals from the center's own garden. I trust the concoction of my own fiction will be as easy on the reading palate and as digestible as hers.

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My new book, a novel, “Leela’s Gift” has been released. In fact it can be viewed at http://lulu.com/spotlight/JLevine1. It will soon be (early August) available at amazon.com and many online venues where book are sold as well as in book stores (remember www.indiebound.org and independent book stores). “Leela’s Gift” is the story of a luminous inner spiritual  journey. It is set in New York and high in the Himalayas near Darjeeling in northern India. The novel uncovers archetypal and highly relevant spiritual teachings. East meet west in Leela. The book offers teachings on meditation and yoga,  practical paths to freedom from the often dispiriting and desperate quality of our contemporary lives. The novel intertwines Leela’s journey with modern philosophy  and primal wisdom and is infused with some of the inner teachings of Buddhism and the Enneagram. “Leela’s Gift” tells a story as old as the human heart.

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I saw a robin today as I walked across campus, a harbinger of spring to come. In a flower bed in front of my home office window there are a host of white and green snowdrops emerging from under those leaves that were not swept away last fall. My heart leaps at the marvel of them. Up here in the north-east corner of this great country of ours, in and around Boston, despite some frigid weeks in December, January and February we have had a mild winter. While all around us and especially to the south and west snowfalls amounts have accumulated above sixty inches (which is our average too),  this year we are at twenty eight and a half inches. Of course we can still encounter some huge storms and maybe will, but on the other hand an early spring is also a possibility. In my native South Africa the change of seasons was not of note. Nine months of summer merged into three months of winter and then, at least in Johannesburg where I lived, the dusty winds of August (spring) heralded the first rains and onset of dry summer heat. Here the spring is a true rebirth. The talons of icy winds and below freezing temperatures slowly loosen their grip on the land and on our psyche. There is an explosion of buds and birds, lawns turn green, the air is warmer on our cheeks, days lengthen, and it rains (a lot). Suddenly the sidewalks are filled with suburban walkers and joggers. More people smile.

Over the past weeks my Philosophy class of college-bound seniors read and discussed Tibetan Buddhist master and Western teacher, Chogyam Trungpa’s book “Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior.” As I read their reflective journals these past days I was struck at how these two-thousand year old teachings caused a rebirth of sorts in my students, an awakening, an opening. They responded with touching honesty to ideas such as “basic goodness”, “being in the now”, “letting go”,  and “drala” the energetic interconnection of all that is. Some wrote of their awareness of their own fears, of how they worry and question, of the endless conveyor belt of expectations they find themselves on, of the material rewards they have accepted as the goal they need to strive towards in order to be “successful” and achieve “happiness.” Trungpa suggests alternative mind-structures, those built of inner balance and harmony, gentleness and respect for self and others. He posits meditation practice as a giant step on the path to becoming a spiritual warrior. As we read the book I taught the basics of meditation and breath-focused attention practices and many students responded positively to the sense of inner calm they can begin to feel burgeoning within.

As Trungpa says “Synchronizing mind and body is not a concept or a random technique someone thought up for self-improvement. Rather, it is a basic principle of how to be a human being and how to use your sense perceptions, your mind and your body together.”

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