I am going to be up front here. I love this book, which is in large part due to its main character, Fleur Robins, daughter of an ultra-Conservative US Senator from Pennsylvania and an alcoholic mother who had Fleur as a teenager. Fleur is one of the most delightful, complex, and often contradictory child characters since Holden Caulfield in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Sheila Tubman in Judy Blume’s Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great—two characters that had a profound impact on my childhood and, subsequently, my life.
Perhaps it is my own growing fascination with Complexity and Chaos Theory, but I have been noticing a recent trend in storytelling—be it novels, television, or (to a lesser extent) film—that comes into play with Sharon Heath’s approach. It began with the male anti-hero in television shows like The Leftovers and Walking Dead, who is flawed, isolated, and oftentimes just plain Wrong. That trend has now broadened and extended to not only female characters, but to entire families. I just finished watching the debut season of Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix. Not only are the relationships between spouses, parents and children, bosses and co-workers, neighbors, and so on incredibly Complex and always on the verge of or in the midst of Chaos, but these multi-level flaws create a much richer, deeper view of Life as We Know It than I think was ever possible before.
It is through this lens that I read Sharon Heath’s novel. Fleur is a study in Dichotomy. Her Nobel-level brilliance couples with a naivety that makes her the prey of the opposite sex; a brilliant vocabulary and a tendency to misinterpret what people are saying make for socially awkward instances and relationship troubles; a dynamic tension between the Private and Public drives her onward through her pre-teen and early teen years with a speed and recklessness fraught with peril and outsized Consequences.
Indeed, aren’t we all, in this post-post-Modern age of sound bites, tweets, and swiping left or right, struggling with the same? The connection between brilliance and lack of common sense; our struggles for True Communication in a world of digital shorthand and diminishing attention spans; of the Public and Private masks that we switch on and off with increasing rapidity; the lessons that come so fast while we are multi-tasking and trying desperately to problem solve on micro and macro scales—it all adds up to a life of Contradictions and Complexity.
This is the life of Fleur Robins. We know from the subtitle that the first book is part of a trilogy and that Fleur is talking to us, not from the present, but from the future. This is a brilliant device on Heath’s part because we experience two points in time simultaneously—Fleur’s experiences (and they are myriad and at times cringe-worthy) and her later self’s recording them after the benefit of time, processing, and maturity.
Given that Fleur, mistaken for learning disabled when she was actually capable of groundbreaking discoveries in Quantum Mechanics when she was barely in double digits age-wise, is obsessed with questions of the Void and Time and Life and Death—questions that work in tandem with the events unfolding in the novel.
But Fleur is not on her own as far as the heavy lifting in all of this relentless Complexity and Chaos. There are her aforementioned parents, who have clear arcs of their own; Fleur’s grandparents; the domestic staff; and the classmates, teachers, and colleagues whom Fleur encounters on her accelerated journey through the educational system (which takes her from a loose version of home schooled to a school for the gifted and talented, to Stanford University).
Although I am tempted to reveal details of Fleur’s experiences, they are all so wonderfully delightful in their unfolding that I will instead keep my remarks general and focus on the overall themes the author employs. As indicated by my choice of title for this review, the Void is a central feature. Calling to mind the alchemical term nigredo, which is the starting material from which everything is created or, even better, a place of infinite possibility, I began to notice the myriad alchemy at work in The History of My Body. There are gardeners and cooks, and quantum physicists—masters of alchemy all. And the journeys of love and forgiveness the reader experiences are of course the heart and soul of alchemy—the transmutation of baser emotions into love. And the journey is difficult for everyone involved: It was hard to see Fleur’s starting condition of “she is too dim to be helped” morph into “she’s such a genius, she doesn’t need help” before continuing on to something resembling a healthy balance. In line with the quantum physics elements of the book, Fleur’s philosophy demonstrates an early working of a Theory of Everything—a rich landscape of overlapping, intertwining, complementary, and at times contradictory metaphors, thought-arcs, and theories Fleur is always apt to test with full fervor.
Heath must be commended—there is a thin, dangerous line for a novelist between such complexity being the beautiful quirk of main character and an indication of poor planning and execution by a writer unable to bring their broad worldview into manageable scope. It is clear that Heath has been purposeful and exacting. Like the best sit-com writers, she repeatedly sets up a “plant” that plays out more fully as the story it resides in reaches its crescendo, creating a “mini-explosion” of meaning of which Fleur would wholeheartedly approve.
Because of her inclination toward diving in head first and asking questions later, Fleur really does remind me of Holden and Sheila. And also of Michael from the hit sit-com The Office. As much as I loved and rooted for him (and precisely because of this connection) I cringed at least once an episode as his incomplete understanding of a situation or some mixed-up mathematics that altered the actual equation of his reality led him to embarrassing and hurtful moments. And Fleur has more than her share of all of these for a girl her age.
To paraphrase Fleur, stories were made to fill the void. Especially ones as richly written as this one. I look forward to continuing Fleur’s adventures when Book 2 comes out.
TITLE: The History of My Body
AUTHOR: Sharon Heath
PUBLISHER: Thomas-Jacob Publishing