14 December 2023
Take What You Need by Idra Novey
Novey’s Take What You Need, on its surface, is about the way a young woman grieves for her “complicated” stepmother and their rocky relationship. And it does deliver, to that end. However, the message that captured my interest centers instead upon the artistic life: solitude, creative energy, improvisation, innovation, play, and the relationships that foster such dreams.
It’s my obligation to consider the novel’s craft and structure for my annotations, so I'll start there. My mentor, Rachel, suggested that I read this book for various reasons—one of which is that it is structured similarly to my own manuscript: two points of view, separated into sections labeled by character name. So there are the Leah sections and the Jean sections. I suspect that the Jean sections are longer and more complex than the Leah sections; this story is about Jean if you ask me.
But what makes the structure interesting is that the sections do not begin at the same time. Leah’s sections happen today in the story, just after Jean’s death. Jean’s sections begin somewhere around five or six years before Leah’s and then move to catch up to Leah. They seem to sort of meet—but not quite: Jean’s sections end perhaps a year or two before her death. Therefore, we have some murky unknowns just prior to Jean’s passing. This leaves us with some questions about the true nature of her relationship with Elliott (which I suspect was filial and celibate).
What I love about this structure, what makes me want to employ it myself, is that the limited point of view of each section (Leah or Jean) leaves a lot of mystery. Leah cannot know what’s going on in Jean’s mind or world, and vice versa. This permits them to have misunderstandings between them—misunderstandings that the reader can witness as misunderstanding. I love that.
Another thing to note is that the entire book is written in past tense. That means even the today sections are not present tense. I see why a lot of authors do this. It’s easy. Still, the past-on-past tense can get murky—and frankly, I think it’s a little bit more daring and engaging to write in present tense. Then, when flashbacks happen, they can be in past tense, which is clearer. It works for Novey, but I am resigned to my decision that my story will take place in present tense, even if it causes some complications.
Jean’s sections of the story employ Agnes Martin and Louise Bourgeois quotes to convey themes of the artistic life that made my heart warm and molten—and brought to mind Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s foreword to Women Who Run With the Wolves. For example, Jean holds two truths at once: she is both the harmless, loving grandmother and the siren: “Although wasn’t the truth otherwise—couldn’t a person be well intentioned most of the time, and just for a few minutes each afternoon become the ravenous wolf?” (114) I love this message because it permits the complexity within each of us that most of us would be loath to concede. Jean knows she is both…“And what had I been after? Not to be some benign grandma with no libido, that was for sure. Louise had refused to deny the libido, the life force of it in herself and her art and everyone else. I couldn’t deny mine either” (154). I know this duplicity within myself; to read Novey’s acknowledgement of it was a spiritual balm.
There were other messages that channeled Julia Cameron throughout, too. Such as the message that the only way for an artist to succeed is to fail and fail harder. Jean exemplifies this through her welding; each time she encounters a challenge and fails, she then learns a new skill and it becomes easy again—so it’s time to fail harder and learn more. Novey writes, “An artist is one who can fail and fail and still go on, I painted for Agnes [Martin]” (167). This message continues to resonate for me, whether it comes from Ben Percy or Stephen King or Julia Cameron or Agnes Martin or even, most recently, my own writing mentor who said, “The most successful writers I know are simply the most prolific.” Well. When life flings a lesson at you this repetitively, you have no choice but to listen.
Here’s one awesome quote to ponder on the point of creativity—in Leah’s words:
I am stunned that I didn’t know Jean had it in her to create a concept this elaborate, to follow through on it over and over again. After college, I attempted a few poems, and once a story, but the sense of exposure was too unnerving. To slip a little of myself imperceptibly into the language of others, as an editor, suggesting words for someone else, felt safer yet still creative, still satisfying. How did Jean find the nerve alone in this house to believe otherwise? (179)
I admit having felt this way myself for decades as a church choir member. Every time the choir director held auditions for solos, I cowered in the chorus, hid in the throng of other voices where I’d never be seen or heard: safe. Then, I had the gall to be envious of those who were awarded solos. It’s terrifying, such visibility and exposure. It seems to invite criticism. But Julia Cameron has something to say about this fear: the only critics who matter are those who also have some skin in the game. Anyone else, if they criticize, are voicing a covert despair of their own suppressed creativity—that they did not have your courage.
Okay one more quote about the creative life before I move on. At one point, Elliott and his no-good friend rob Jean’s house in the middle of the night, taking her laptop and cell phone. Jean is calm when she realizes what’s lost. In truth, I think she’s hopeful Elliott could use it to buy himself food. Anyway, her attitude about it is remarkable:
I’d be okay for the next day or two. Or far longer. To be stripped of any connection to the internet for a short spell might be freeing. I had the landline, and who was calling me anyhow? Who was going to email? Not Leah, not for a good while, I was certain of that. There was no real hurry to replace my devices. To be robbed clean of them seemed as good a reason as any to give myself over to a new tower, to stack up the Manglements I had left on the shelves, maybe make a trip tomorrow over to Marty’s scrapyard for some more sheet metal to weld a new larger box as a solid base of this new metal cactus. And once I got some cash out of the bank I could head to Bull Creek to search for railroad spikes. (193-4).
It just so happens that I was talking about such setbacks with Brian the other day. I had quite a few major wins in a row last month: a new job offer, an internship offer, a major scholarship award, and the acceptance of two short stories for publication. I told Brian, it’s scary. It’s scary having too much success at once because the mind wants to believe in balance, in karma. But my mind stopped itself dead at that thought—because what is the opposite of success? Is it failure? Is it setback? Aren’t the nature of these things subject to interpretation? For even as I wrote above, failure is creative—failure is indicative of greater success. The same can be said for setbacks. The truth is, there is no reason to fear such losses: they are future gains. Jean saw this in the moment above. She saw that a setback was ultimately a benefit.
I’ll admit, this is a book where I felt myself spoon-feeding the Leah (stepdaughter) chapters like soggy peas and carrots just to get to the Jean (stepmother) chapters—the steak and lobster. I despised Leah and begrudged Novey dumping me into Leah’s head space. The girl was snobbish, negative, judgmental, skittish, and suspicious of everyone. And this might’ve been acceptable, might’ve been fine, if she’d showed any hints of character development prior to the final 50 pages of the book. Yet she did not. Thus at the start of each of her sections, I couldn’t help but scribble on the page, repeatedly, “I hate this chick.” I wish her character had been redeemable; I wish we’d seen some change in the way she approached the world by the end of the story. I’m bummed that never happened. The only redeeming moment regarding Leah’s character was Jean’s acknowledgement that it was her toxic father who created Leah so. I’m always a softie for characters formed by generational trauma.
Okay, as for a review, I’d recommend this novel for its messages about the creative life. I didn’t think I’d be able to get on board with a welder being an artist at first, but I was wrong. Jean’s art, whether real or imagined, is awe inspiring. God, I love being an artist. For those messages, I give the story five stars (even if craft-wise I’d rate it less).