Jean Thompson’s latest novel, “Girl in the Shape of a Cloud”, is a multi-generational account of three women: Evelyn, Laura and Grace. In a small university town, the past seems inescapable. It greets you at birth and lingers long after you’ve gone. This is the reality Grace lives in, much like her mother Laura before her and her grandmother Evelyn before that; a world of prescribed expectations. Thompson links the women by more than blood in telling their stories and, for once, allowing them to stand alone. Slipping effortlessly between perspectives and timelines, the stories we see may just be the stories of us all. The ones that never get told. “A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl” details the slow creep of life from bygone trysts of youth to the scarcity of sureness, the imposed duties, the dull contempt, and the frustrating mundanity that seems to wear everything down like water as it drips over stone.
Opening at the close of Evelyn’s life, her daughter Laura grapples with the person her mother was and who she herself has become. Meanwhile, her daughter Grace struggles to intercept her own identity from that of her oppressive family: a martyr for a mother, an overworked alcoholic father, and a drug-addled and needy brother. Despite herself, when her mother is hit with a weighty diagnosis following Evelyn’s death, Grace finds herself inheriting all of the things that as a modern woman, she’d hoped to avoid. It is Grace who is left at the helm to try and keep their dysfunctional family afloat. In the process, she is plunged into the cold undercurrent that seems to run beneath all generations of women. Hers is the story of strength as a last resort; a story of strength by default.
I read this book while my parents were in town visiting. I couldn’t help peering over the pages and seeing the time capsules that they had become, the ones that we all are. What unknown stories did they hold? Which ones would others never know about me? It was a welcome perspective and one that seemed to permeate every page of the book. The characters in “Girl in the Shape of a Cloud” resonated with such basic truths, it was almost a relief to read their accounts and think, “it’s not just me” or, “that sounds just like so and so…”. I laughed at their quips and marital scruples and recognized their silences and the banal ways in which they felt on the sidelines of their own lives. They were real and recognizable in ways that all characters should be, particularly the women around whom the story is built. In fact, I liked them so much that I wish I could have spent more time with them. When the primary perspective falls to Grace, it felt as if the story moved from this complicated lineage of women to the men in Grace’s life: her father, her brother, a faux-lover. I was disappointed to be cut off from the storyline of the original characters who I had come to like and feel deeply curious about. That shift left the novel feeling unfinished for me, but I suspect there was no way around that. I wanted to turn over every rock that Evelyn and Laura had touched. Perhaps it’s simply an unfortunate consequence of all well-liked characters. Still, it is a worthwhile read with strong and emotive themes. “Girl in the Shape of a Cloud” will have you looking at your life and the lives of those around you with new eyes.