How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly

How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly. Grand Central Publishing, New York, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-446-54068-1.

Reviewed by Glenda Bailey-Mershon.

How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly contains an encyclopedia of wondrous writing skills from Connie May Fowler. Memorable characters are Fowler’s forte. But the heart and humanity at the core of her latest novel surpasses even her best so far, and will make this book, I predict, a bestseller.

Fowler carries her readers forward like intrepid explorers of the human psyche, alive to each twitch of synapse, each pulse of her characters’ breaths. She paints the Florida landscape, the tethers of history, spirits struggling to break free, and even the souls of animals in prose that frequently lifts off the page. Impossible not to love a character as conflicted, as burdened, as funny and sensitive as Clarissa. But a fly? Well, that would not have been on my Valentine’s list, before now.

A summation of the plot might sound depressing: one day in the life of Clarissa Burden, a writer who suffers writer’s block—the literal stoppage of her voice—while she struggles against the disintegration of her marriage to a photographer who flaunts his young, naked models and treats her with contempt. A downer, you say? Well, hold on.

Ultimately, this is a triumphal story, one that is mindful of, but not subordinate to, gender or polemics in general. What I believe makes Clarissa Burden an important book is the intricate and deep portrait of self-abnegation drawn in the title character. Clarissa succumbs, as many people do, to the linked weapons of past and present emotional abuse, which rob her of self-esteem. Her challenge, and the main plot of the book, is learning to fight back, not with her body or the law, but with self-discovery and strength of character. In one very long, very hot Florida day and night, we accompany Clarissa on a journey that will set her free for good.

And did I mention the book’s humor? What if we threw in the fly, who dotes on Clarissa’s every breath; a slapstick interview with a youthful, breathless, admiring, but clueless journalist; blue cerulean boots that grant super hero status to the wearer; and the voices of the author’s Ovarian Shadow Women, who chant, cajole, shame, and celebrate like the most relentless, and closest, of girlfriends?

And what if one lingering scene of potential romance on a semi-tropical bay during a long, moon-bedeviled Solstice evening tempts you with extraordinary detail enough to put you on the next flight to Florida?

What if all this is written in the closest third person narrative you might ever have read, in the voices of characters who feel so close their breath brushes your cheek? If there are subplots that elucidate both the best and the worst in humanity? If, at the end, you feel you’ve learned something important about how souls contract, and how we can take charge of our own expansion?

When I feel like that, I keep reading, and I predict that many other readers will keep reading as Clarissa climbs the charts. Don’t miss the scene at Poor Spot Cemetery or the aforementioned scene on the Bay, or the story of the Villada family, or many other vibrant scenes, all the way to the end.

Speaking of the end––well, this is a complex, overflowing book. Only once did I lose the thread, near the final pages, when Fowler draws the knots of the plot taut––and suddenly there is a circus I wanted to brush out of the way while I found out what happened to the characters I had come to adore, as well as those whose heartless machinations I feared. But this was no more than a minor annoyance, and the conclusion is, as Publisher’s Weekly noted, explosive. Overall, it works.

In Connie May Fowler’s hands, Florida is a magical place. The state should seriously consider building her a monument, from which she can entertain us all by reading, shod, of course, in blue cerulean boots, and with all the Shadow Women singing doo-wop to her tune.

About the Author

Connie May Fowler is an essayist, screenwriter, and novelist. She is the author of five novels, most recently The Problem with Murmur Lee, and a memoir, When Katie Wakes. In 1996, she published Before Women Had Wings, which became a paperback bestseller and was made into a successful Oprah Winfrey Presents movie. She founded the Connie May Fowler Women With Wings Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to aiding women and children in need.

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