One of my favorite authors, Pam Houston, has just published her first book in seven years, Contents May Have Shifted. I love her work for many reasons but as I grow older, I find I am drawn to her characters because Houston’s writing focuses on that elusive beast rarely glimpsed in a fiction or film: the mature intelligent woman. While I enjoy a good chick-lit novel as much as any lover of the genre, and I never hesitate to highly recommend them as fun and delightfully escapist mind-candy, I really do not have all that much in common with the female characters. I find that I often crave connections of self-recognition and sameness with the characters in the books that I read.
Chick-lit female protagonists are all in their late twenties to early thirties, have fabulous careers in New York or London, wear designer clothes, and are always able to neatly solve any problems so that they have a happy ending. Houston’s women are much more shrewd and independent and witty instead of slapstick funny. They are not always able, nor do they want to, to solve any problem so cleanly and easily. Their worlds are messily realistic and designer clothes are rarely worn. While Houston's women are often tempted to make their lives easier with less honorable personal choices, they most often make the hard decision to do the right thing for themselves even if it is difficult. Through this process, they carve out a life that is deeply self-satisfying. I also envy her female characters for their fearlessness and willingness to keep searching for what they need, as well as their ability to take risks and take that chance by stepping off that cliff into the proverbial unknown.
Pam, the eponymously named protagonist of Contents May Have Shifted, is another one of these women. As expected, she goes on both a figurative and literal journey to discover what a joyful and rewarding effort it is to do the right thing, the best thing for yourself, and that it is necessary and worth the cost to lug all of your proverbial baggage along. Pam, like all of Houston’s women, discovers that bliss and empowerment of living an examined, and yet ultimately more difficult, life is worth the pain. While the premise sounds trite, done-to-death, and just a fictionalized version of Eat, Pray, Love, Houston’s lyrical yet pithy prose sets her work apart. She also builds such interesting layers into her characters and their lives that I become invested in them and care what happens to them. That is something that Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir never achieved in my opinion and even though it was the story of her life, I just didn’t care what happened to her and thought her journey and writing were both shallow and falsely self-reflexive.
I first discovered Houston’s writing when I picked up her novel Sight Hound after the cover caught the attention of the dog person in me. The novel revolves around Dante, an Irish Wolfhound, who is dying of cancer and his mother (as I would call her) Rae. It is so much more than a sad girl-loses-dog story because it concerns the effect Dante’s illness and death have on Rae, the tough decisions she must make and the ripple effects on her and all the important people in her life. I was reading this book while out to dinner with my husband, it is our habit to both read when we go out, at one of our favorite restaurants about one month after the death of my beloved dog Max. I reached a chapter about Rae’s thoughts and feelings as she waited for news of Dante’s condition at an emergency vet clinic in the middle of the night. Houston’s amazing writing captured the terror, the fear, the loneliness, and overwhelming loss that I felt on several similar nights with Max. This intense personal connection combined with the stark beauty and intense pain of the prose made me break down and sob right there in the restaurant, much to my husband’s chagrin. Great books and writers have the ability to juxtapose such sorrow and beauty.
I urge you to check out any of Houston’s work, which in addition to the two books mentioned above, includes two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me. Houston loves the West and all her work incorporates this elegant and spare spirit of the landscape, in much the same satisfying way and with a similar emotional heft, which Annie Proulx’s work does.