Friday, July 14, 2023

"Half-Life of a Stolen Sister"

Rachel Cantor is the author of the novels Half-Life of a Stolen Sister (2023), Good on Paper (2016), and A Highly Unlikely Scenario (2014). Two dozen of her stories have been published in The Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and elsewhere. She has written about fiction for National Public Radio, the Guardian, Publishers Weekly, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she is writing a series of middle grade and young adult books set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Cantor applied the Page 69 Test to Half-Life of a Stolen Sister and reported the following:
Page 69 presents the first page of a story titled “A Fishmonger’s Complaint: In Which Duty is Explained” (which in turn introduces Pt. 2, “Duty”). As the Brontë family celebrates New Year’s Eve, Aunt, who is the voice of convention, reprimands Emily, who is sixteen, for being brusque with the fishmonger. Emily will not apologize:
He merely passes the time, says Aunt, who has apparently received the complaint.

He wastes time—does he think I have an endless supply? I am there to purchase fish and be gone, so I may do my real work, which is to think.

Your real work is to be of service, says Aunt.

I serve my mind, says Em. It is a heavy taskmaster.
There are certainly ways in which page 69 might give the reader a sense of the whole of Half-Life of a Stolen Sister: it offers a characteristic example of the book’s humor and voice; it refers to each family member at least once; it offers a sense of the characters of Emily, Papa, and Aunt, and of the strong affection the Brontës have for each other. New Year’s Eve dinners, moreover, with their particular rituals, recur as a sort of touchstone, allowing the reader a familiar spot from which to assess what’s changed (who is present, who’s missing, how those present get along, what’s happening beneath the surface of their interactions, etc.).

However … Half-Life of a Stolen Sister brings the Brontë family to a contemporary setting (a North American city more or less in our time), something you can’t know from reading this page. Half-Life is also a novel in stories: it uses a variety forms and points of view to describe the life of the Brontës. This three-pager takes the form of a one-scene story told in an intimate third person, but other pieces are written as letters, diary entries, home movies, radio scripts, and so on, related by members of the Brontë family, friends, strangers even. If you only read this page, you might assume a continuous narrative told by a single, sympathetic third-person narrator. You might also assume that the book is made up of trivial family interactions whereas, in fact, two pages later everything changes—for Charlotte, for the family dynamic. I won’t say the Page 69 Test completely fails, because page 69 contains enough, I think, to capture a reader, but, sadly, it does not give a sense of the formal richness or emotional range of Half-Life of a Stolen Sister.
Visit Rachel Cantor's website.

The Page 69 Test: A Highly Unlikely Scenario.

The Page 69 Test: Good on Paper.

--Marshal Zeringue