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Author Alice McDermott on linking the dramas of women's lives and wartime Saigon

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The question at the heart of Alice McDermott's latest book is - what do you sacrifice in order to do something good for someone else? The author's answer is told through the story of Tricia, a young wife who's moved to 1963 Saigon with her new husband, an engineer loaned to the Navy.

ALICE MCDERMOTT: She is a stranger in a strange land, in many ways - a working-class girl, first to go to college in her family at an all-girl Catholic school in Manhattan - and she's following her up-and-coming rising-into-the-upper-classes husband to Saigon. She's not quite sure why there are so many American engineers in Saigon in 1963, but she sees herself, as many women of that era did, as a helpmeet to her husband.

SUMMERS: Almost immediately, Tricia is swept up into the world of another Saigon wife, Charlene.

MCDERMOTT: She sort of burst into the novel in much the same way she burst into Tricia's life. My first reaction was very much like Tricia's - like, oh, God. I know this type - you know, the pushy corporate wife getting you to do things you don't want to do and smarter than everybody else. But she also is very philosophical about her role in the world. She disapproves of human suffering.

SUMMERS: The story of the relationship between the two women is recounted through letters decades later between Tricia and Charlene's daughter, Rainey.

MCDERMOTT: I think what that distance does is - No. 1, it gives Tricia an opportunity to tell her story because a woman of that era would say, my husband was doing the important things. But also Rainey, who was a child in 1963, asked Tricia, do you remember me? Do you remember my mother? And that gives Tricia permission to remember.

SUMMERS: And as Tricia remembers that relationship with her polar opposite, Charlene, what the two women gave each other all those years ago in Saigon and what they learned about life becomes clear.

MCDERMOTT: Female relationships are where you can have some of the most interesting conversations 'cause nobody's stopping to mansplain that you don't have the...

SUMMERS: That's true.

MCDERMOTT: ...Politics right or the history right. And again, when you're dealing with women of this era - basic things they didn't know about their bodies, basic things they didn't know about childbirth and miscarriage - miscarriage was not spoken of. Yes, it was a failing. But in some ways, because it wasn't spoken of, it made it seem even worse. But women could speak to one another about that. So in some ways, Charlene is a guide for Tricia through this world, but she's also an opportunity for Tricia to discover what she thinks and how she feels. She pushes Tricia into some uncomfortable places but also enlarges her sense of what she can do in the world.

SUMMERS: What do you think it is that Tricia pushes Charlene to do or challenges Charlene? What do you think her role is? You talked about how Charlene pushes her into uncomfortable places, but what about Tricia's end of the bargain?

MCDERMOTT: Yeah. At one point, Tricia describes how she gives a phrase that Tricia has learned - the Hebrew midrash of tikkun olam - repair the world - and she gives it to Charlene because she sees this as kind of what Charlene, in her limited circumstances, wants to do. Charlene turns right back and says, ah, yeah, but the Buddhists say, mend yourself.

SUMMERS: Yeah.

MCDERMOTT: And in some ways, that's the heart of the question that Charlene proposes to Tricia - do you go out and battle against this human suffering that is insurmountable, or do you lock the door and say, I'm just going to take care of what I'm meant to take care of?

SUMMERS: Tricia is very eager to grow her family and to have a child, but she does have these multiple miscarriages. And there is this beautiful but incredibly devastating scene in your book after Tricia has a miscarriage after about three months of pregnancy, and Charlene comes to visit her. And there's this moment that I will not forget where the two of them are looking at that embryo together, and Charlene baptizes it. Can you just talk about that scene and that moment?

MCDERMOTT: In some ways, I think this is the moment where Charlene, the stereotype - the annoying charity lady - becomes fully human. Charlene comes in and offers her comfort and gives a sense of respect to the grief...

SUMMERS: Yeah.

MCDERMOTT: ...That she's living through when the wider world - the male world - would not have done so. Tricia's husband, as good-intentioned as he is, doesn't really know what to say to her, except maybe get over it, you know? But Charlene gives the grace of allowing her to mourn and recognizing the importance of this. And I think also it's that sense - and in many ways, I think this is what the novel ultimately became for me - the value we place on any life - children's lives, especially - especially in war, something we're all very aware of right now. What value do we place on motherhood, childhood, the grief that we feel in any ordinary life?

SUMMERS: I think perhaps one of the reasons that this scene has stuck with me and I found it so moving is because, even today, where we talk about so many shared experiences, where we have more education and more knowledge about our own bodies as women...

MCDERMOTT: Right.

SUMMERS: ...We do not talk or write about experiences of miscarriage in the level of detail and specificity that are shown in this book. What is it that you hope the reader takes away from this?

MCDERMOTT: Well, you know, one of the intentions, I think, of the novel and why I set it in 1963, in Saigon - because all of these amazing world events were happening - but the lives of women also had great significance to them, and they're ongoing. And so the female friendship, the works of charity, bringing lollipops to the children in the hospital - in some ways, when you put that work up against all the world-changing things that were happening, it seems trivial. And I guess I wanted to shine the light on that and say, no, it is not. It is as human and as complicated as what the CIA was doing - the men in the CIA were doing - in Saigon in 1963, as all the world events that 1963 was so rich in. There's great significance in the ongoing human drama of reproduction. One of Charlene's refrains about suffering is, don't turn away from it. Even if you can't solve it, it is a small evil to turn away from it. And in some ways, the complexity of women's lives, the complexity of having children, bringing them into the world, raising them safely, giving them a chance to have their own children, is something that we should respect and not turn away from as well.

SUMMERS: One of the things you mentioned earlier is that one of the central questions of this book is - what is the value and the meaning of charity? And I wonder if you think that the book offers an answer to that, or is there an easy answer to that question?

MCDERMOTT: Yeah, I hope there's not an easy answer. I thought I - it's complicated, and I think that easy answers in some ways make shallow every effort - you know, why are you doing that? That's not going to do any good. Or do that - it's going to do good. No it's not. Something terrible will still happen elsewhere in the world. The professor at the University of Virginia who gives Tricia the phrase, tikkun olam - repair the world - compares it to the old house he lives in. You fix one thing - for sure, something else is going to be broken. That's the nature of what we live with. So it's complicated. And there is that sense of - what do you sacrifice in order to do something for someone else?

SUMMERS: Alice McDermott, thank you so much.

MCDERMOTT: Thank you.

SUMMERS: Her new novel, "Absolution," is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elena Burnett
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.

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