You don’t need to know anything about Maggie Ginsberg to adore her first novel. You don’t need to know that she’s a truly lovely person, warm and generous of spirit. The kind of person who offers her secrets to help you heal your own.
All of this is irrelevant because this is a book review, not an author review.
Except that Still True is a first novel, and like most first novels, it’s clear that Ginsberg has imbued it with everything life has handed her up to now. She gives us Lib and Jack, married three decades without living together. She gives us Claire and Charlie, mother and son trapped in an unhappy home. She gives us the fictional town of Anthem, Wisconsin, not a quaint and reductive portrait of it but rather a convincing place inhabited by a hash of likeable misfits. She gives us Lib’s hard-fought independence, Claire’s desperate self-destruction, Charlie’s lonely bids for escape, Jack’s stubborn fear of change.
You don’t need to know the author personally to feel the earned wisdom in the interior lives of her characters. Take Lib, for instance: “Overhead, a trio of vultures churned the late afternoon sky. She watched them circle, thinking, not for the first time, that self-preservation took a special kind of patience.” With every scene or glimpse inside a character’s heart and mind, Ginsberg reminds the reader: Make connections. Hold fast to them. And know when to let go.
Holding fast is the beating heart at Still True’s center. It’s a tenacious and fearless book even in its prose. It dives so unflinchingly into each scene that we feel as if we’re wearing the character’s skin. The book (like the author) is lush and vigorous and generous, ardent in its examination of each meaningful moment. You’re never left guessing at a character’s experience, just as you never leave a conversation with the author herself feeling unsatisfied or unheard. Even a marriage of three decades receives Ginsberg’s luxuriant focus.
“He never knew what she’d bring him—an idea, a token, a story. Onions plucked from her garden, dirt still clinging to their roots. Sometimes nothing at all, not a word, for days. He didn’t care. He knew how lucky he was. Coming together with Lib hadn’t felt like compromising or sacrificing, more like doubling himself in size. Expanding as though he’d swallowed some magic tonic.”
In the hands of a lesser writer, Lib and Jack’s unconventional marriage might have elbowed its way into the book’s forefront, but Ginsberg’s story is about living authentically, and the marriage is tested not by distance but by secrets.
This is not an author review, no. But it’s compelling, isn’t it, to know that the way an author moves in the world is reflected in her storytelling? That without Ginsberg’s boundless spirit, her novel might be something less than the fully humane novel that it is, and it might not brim as it does with decency and truth? I think so.