Rosalie Morales Kearns
Review of Three by Annemarie Monahan
(Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012), paperback, 300 pp., $16.95
The premise of Annemarie Monahan's intriguing novel Three is that the three narrators, Katherine, Kitty, and Ántonia (formerly Kate), all age 41, are in fact the same person. No, this isn't a case of multiple personalities, but don't worry if you've forgotten the details of that NOVA episode on the multiverse. The author, wisely, doesn't explain how these three parallel lives are possible, leaving the reader to become engrossed in the rich character studies and ponder larger questions of how circumstances and experiences shape the self: If your life had taken a different turn, would you still be you? Would you even recognize that alternate self if you somehow met her? To Monahan's credit, she allows us to work through these questions--to live the questions vicariously through the narrators--without insisting on an answer.
Katherine, by far the most prosperous of the three, is a physician in Connecticut, accomplished, successful, and comfortable with her lesbian identity. By contrast, Kitty works in a school library and is now earning her bachelor's degree part-time, after early (unplanned) motherhood and marriage made her put her own aspirations on hold. But the first adult narrator we hear from is Ántonia, whose traumatic experiences at a failed lesbian-feminist commune are so deliciously bizarre that it's almost a relief to learn of them in fragments. When the novel opens she's living alone in a slum apartment, eking out a living as a phone psychic and struggling with chronic pain after surviving a lightning strike.
One of the many pleasures of the novel is the process of piecing together how each narrator has arrived at the present moment--and how, if each of them is the same, they became so different. The most ordinary of the three is the suburban wife/mother Kitty, but her story ends up being surprisingly moving. In high school she is the good girl, the smart girl, but her future is derailed by her sexual naïveté and her authoritarian parents. Kitty is a perfect example of how heteronormativity can act on a girl before she truly understands her own sexual being, forcing her life onto a track that, while never unpleasant, is not truly what she wanted. She loves her husband (her "best friend"), loves her kids, but is starting to realize that she yearns for something more, and is deeply unsettled to find herself feeling intense attraction, even passion, for another woman.
As a fiction writer I appreciated the many writerly challenges that Monahan has set for herself. She is unafraid to let her brainy characters think, talk and write to each other about literature and religion and life and love and sex. There is no clear cut plot in the sense of an obvious rising action, climax, and denouement; rather, we have three juxtaposed portraits of women at different phases of self-discovery, none of which is neatly resolved by novel's end. Monahan uses both first-person narration and the present tense, another writerly challenge that places constraints on how and when an author can work in backstory and characterization. But these choices help to evoke a modernist, stream-of-consciousness feel, appropriate for a novel whose characters love T.S. Eliot and enthusiastically discuss the novels of Virginia Woolf. In fact, the "Do I dare to eat a peach?" section of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a recurring motif, and Kitty's musings on the passing of time ("The last squirt of shampoo. The dulled razor. The lint that slowly chokes the trap. . . . Another check register. A fresh sponge. A new goldfish" ) seem another way of "measur[ing] out [one's] life with coffee spoons."
I also applaud the author's frank and celebratory depiction of lesbian erotic life. In a recent essay on the constraints felt by women authors trying to write about sex, Heather Fowler notes that when female authors depict "the pain, the violation of the female body, . . . [we] are accepted and lauded for it. . . . But when approaching the kingdom of enjoyable sex-oriented interaction, . . . too few of us are brave enough . . . to elaborate on the description of the love act's exquisite joy." Monahan is definitely brave enough to bestow on her characters moments of transcendent understanding and joy, both sexual and spiritual, when "the door of perception [is] wrenched open" (94).
Another highlight of the novel is the characters' sardonic humor: Ántonia revels in her kitschiness as a phone psychic: she speaks in a fake Transylvanian accent; she hits a tiny gong at the beginning of each session. And here is Katherine's hilariously cantankerous response to a fundraising email from a Catholic bishops' organization: "Gentlemen, and I use the term loosely, please do not confuse my enthusiasm for your music with an enthusiasm for your church. If you cannot feed your teeming flocks, I suggest you rethink your ban on birth control and homosexuality. Until then, please do not darken my inbox door" (40).
Then there are quiet moments of introspection that provide deep insight into the characters. Waking up in the middle of the night, Kitty studies her husband, asleep in the moonlight: "Kevin's turned and thrown off the blanket, its crumples like waves under the moon. One foot dangles over the edge, dappled. In boxers, his hairy body runs in one bright line, taperless from waist through thigh. His chest glows ruddy as Mars in the shine-shadow. He's crooked an arm against the brilliance, his night-beard illuminated in strips. I can't see his face. I watch his balding head, suddenly alien in the blue, merciless light" (123-24). At this point in the novel the reader has already seen that Kevin is a good and loving man; in this vivid word portrait, the fact that she sees him as aesthetically pleasing but unknowable ("I can't see his face") and "alien" tells us as much about Kitty and her newly acknowledged love of women as it does about the husband who fails to ignite her passion.
Like most complex and ambitious literary novels, this one bears re-reading--in fact almost demands it. As improbable as the premise may be, the beautifully drawn characters are believable and memorable.
Rosalie Morales Kearns is an Albany, NY-based writer. One of the stories in her collection Virgins and Tricksters (Aqueous Books, 2012) earned a Special Mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize volume. Her stories, poems, and nonfiction have appeared most recently in Witness, The Nervous Breakdown, Necessary Fiction, and Her Kind.