Heat Lightning is about the visit of Amy Norton to her family home somewhere in the midwest. She is visiting to come to terms with her marital problems, and as she observes her family she slowly gains insight into her own situation. In the background, her family is coming to terms with changes too, most significantly as the Wall Street crash a year earlier threatens the family fortune.
There are a number of glowing reviews of this book in the blogosphere (see below), all by bloggers I hugely admire and usually find my self in agreement with. I find myself a little more divided in my feelings towards the book. I didn’t not enjoy it, and I definitely admired parts of it, and yet it did not leave me with the same glow of affection Persephones usually manage to evoke.
Hull’s writing is definitely beautiful, and there is something in the novel’s voice that pulls you in once you start reading. Admittedly, I struggled with the first pages, hence why it took me so long to finally read this because I started and put it down quite a few times. Moreover, the final 30 pages or so again felt slower to me, a little less gripping. But in between? In between I quickly fell into the lives of the Westover family and was happily carried along in Amy’s thoughts and interactions.
There is something very admirable about this story that covers – I think – about a week? in a family’s household and makes you care about what happens, particularly if most of the family members are not exactly likeable or sympathetic. Care not in a deep and immediate way mind, like Amy the reader is sometimes more observer than family member, but at the really important plot points that changes. The thing is, you might wonder what the story is about exactly, because while a number of things happen, it is also the story of a seemingly regular week in a regular, albeit initially very privileged, family. But it is exactly that which I admire in Hull’s writing, Hull who makes a very compelling and interesting story of a domestic setting, without having to fall into exaggerations. Hull has been compared to Dorothy Whipple in this respect, and I can definitely see the similarities.
There are also echoes of Whipple, I found, in the manner in which some of what I imagine to be more controversial topics back then are discussed: there’s room for exploring unhappy marriages, adultery, illegitimate children, and hints of homosexuality. Perhaps Amy’s own marital problems are the most interesting, because they remain almost marginal for most of the book and yet make up the main arc; the reader knows that Amy’s preoccupied with the difficulties between her husband and herself but she also seems content to observe and contemplate as if from the corner of her eyes. Yet, in her thoughts and responses, we know that Hull is contemplating women’s fate and position, and there’s a constant back and forth between whether or not women have to settle for less than perfect, and having Amy fight for having things her own way.
But there is something else to the book, something that I know rationally should not have clouded my enjoyment because of the time and place it was written, but unfortunately did. Amy and her midwestern family are privileged, and the loss they fear for does not seem to equal the circumstances that many of their servants live in. This privilege is to some extent taken for granted, as I imagine it would have been back then. Classicism is apparent in this novel, and while there are hints of boundaries being negotiated, they are also redrawn most of the time. Moreover, there’s the preoccupation with race and the taken-for-grantedness about boundaries there, and how being from a different “race” equals having a different station in life.
Fiction from other periods can be interesting not just if it was subvertive for that time, but exactly because it shows us views as they were and as they worked. And I want to embrace that. I do not want to judge a work by my own contemporary standards, always. And yet it was this back and forth of how I should feel about reading this, something about being shaken from my comfortable enjoyment by these statements that I wanted to rail against.. that in part informed my ability to embrace this book as I have done with other Persephones.