In 1951, poet Langston Hughes wondered if dreams deferred dry up like raisins in the sun, or if they ultimately explode. Mary Gaitskill’s novel “Veronica” is the story of two women who stifle their dreams.
Alison and Veronica meet in New York in the 1980s. One aspires to a successful modeling career, and the other desires love to end her loneliness. Although Veronica is 16 years older than Alison, they form a fast bond based on mutual pity for one another. Their friendship is one of irony, understanding, weirdness and grace. Ultimately, Alison and Veronica allow each other to experience humanity.
Gaitskill’s title choice is ironic because Alison narrates the story, and the reader understands more about her personality, values, and choices than Veronica’s. Alison tells Veronica’s story through her own lens, recounting their friendship through fragments of memory that often feel like tangents. Gaitskill manages to unify these small shards by indicating changes in tone or mood that follow shifts in Alison’s life.
Gaitskill tells the story of their relationship in a circular fashion, opening the story with Alison at present, a Hepatitis C sufferer, and then backtracks to her years as a runaway teen in San Francisco. Her fascination with models begins at age 15 when she tears picture of poses out of magazines and tacks them on the wall of her room to admire.
With an air of artlessness about her that attracts the attention and affection of various men, Alison stumbles into drug-laden modeling jobs in Paris. She dates Alain Black, a cruel man who is head of Celeste modeling agency, and who shrugs off people like one would shrug off a jacket. However, she is drawn to the indescribable within him.
“Brightness poured through his eyes in hot little pieces. I followed with my own eyes, thinking that if I could stop one little piece and see what it was, I would find the whole world,” Alison states.
Alain’s brightness fades when he steals Alison’s earnings and locks her out of her Parisian apartment. She soon finds herself hurtling through the skies to her childhood home in New Jersey, and spends a year at community college before moving to Manhattan.
At a word-processing job, Alison’s first impression of Veronica is that she looks askew from a distance.
“Up close, she was not askew in any way. She was monstrously ordered. In her plaid suit, ruffled blouse, and bow tie, she was like a human cuckoo clock.”
Veronica is perceptive of Alison’s worldliness, and senses a Parisian aura about her. They are paired at work for the next three evenings, and trade stories about job searches and Judy Garland.
Alison does not care about Veronica at first, and simply tolerates the work-time conversations they share. “I was not interested in her, but I was curious about her, like I might be curious about an elaborate object.”
Unexpectedly, Alison’s fascination with Veronica blossoms into a friendship. They support each other through a series of broken relationships, personal disappointments and the selfishness of others. Although Alison returns to modeling, the two-decade-long friendship continues without lapse. Veronica is the only person Alison trusts not to reject her.
“Veronica” is simultaneously raw, shocking, brutal, and assured. By writing openly about everything from life to sex to brutality, Gaitskill transports the reader to the depths of humanity. Impossible to put down, “Veronica” captures the essence of the deepest desire of people: the pursuit and fulfillment of their dreams.