A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That opens on Rachel Spark, a poet and teacher in her early 30s living with her mother “because she was sick and I was poor,” and sleeping with men whose power to hurt her bears only the slightest relationship to her interest in them. In the book’s first scene, she finds herself making out with a toaster-collecting pizza cook who drives a “titty pink” Studebaker. “His name is Dirk or Derrick or Dick,” she observes. “I make a mental note to find out which one before I let his hand into my skirt.” And she does, not by asking him point-blank — so late in their relationship, while they’re already “kissing and sucking as if we are each other’s much-needed medicine,” that would be rude. Instead, she asks him to spell it. “‘D-I-R-K,’ he says, rolling his pretty brown eyes.”
In Lisa Glatt’s first novel, which came into being as a collection of short stories published in various literary reviews, Rachel tells her own story in the first person, in chapters intertwined with third-person accounts of her friends and acquaintances, women and girls who wend their way through her life like fine threads securing her to the world: Rachel’s student, a budding poet who works in a family-planning clinic; a promiscuous teenager whose father suffers from an Alzheimer’s-like brain disorder; and Rachel’s best friend, Angela, boy-crazy and plagued by mysterious allergies. Each of the women appears first in Rachel’s narrative as she later pops up in theirs, and resurfaces in each other’s stories, shadows of their own futures. Each of them becomes, in the course of the novel’s delicate fugue, deeply empathetic and achingly familiar — so much so that closing the book on them all after the last story feels to the reader like a little death.
That Glatt’s writing invokes such emotion for fictional characters somehow feels like trickery; her women aren’t epic, after all, and the dramas in their Southern California lives look puny against the backdrop of global events. Though humor sometimes emerges from the scenarios, as when Rachel bickers with a woman in an abortion clinic, or Angela tears lustily into a chicken leg in front of her preciously vegetarian date, the women themselves are neither comic nor beautiful nor particularly nice. By their own admission, they say fuck too much and eat too heartily; they memorize the how-to-get-a-man tips from fashion magazines — “keep the number of former lovers she’s had to herself, learn to cook a perfect brisket, pretend she’s sweeter than she is, less educated, more educated, younger, taller, learn to drive a stick shift, talk during sex, scream during sex, shut up during sex . . .” — but somehow they can never decide whether men find fellatio alluring or whorish. (They do it anyway, but for selfish reasons.)
And for all their radical differences in age and temperament, they suffer on despairingly similar terms: Georgia, the teenager, has unsafe sex at 13, Rachel at “over 30,” and both end up on the same day in the same family-planning clinic where Rachel’s star poetry student, Ella, counsels clients on their unwanted pregnancies and “horrible diseases with beautiful names.” Rachel’s friend Angela weeps over a man with whom she has “silly, fumbling sex” just as Rachel herself risks all for a British journalist who slurps on his bangers and mash: “[A] condom might have saved my life,” she admits, “but latex over a particular penis made it any penis, and the act of wearing one was, at this particular time, like pantyhose over a face . . .”
As its title suggests, A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That is something of a puzzle, seeded with details of hidden significance that later sprout into full-fledged dramas. Metaphors and synchronistic images echo throughout Glatt’s prose: Leeches applied to draw blood through Rachel’s mother’s reconstructed breast bear a remarkable resemblance to a certain man’s erect penis; Ella’s husband sees a woman struck by a car, her little dog sent flying from its baby carriage “like popcorn,” who may or may not be the same woman with the “moody poodle” Rachel complained about in a neighborhood bar. Rachel herself witnesses a young woman’s suicide from her window — one of the ways a girl becomes a comma, her body crumpled on the pavement. The other way, Rachel understands, is by having sex “with wrong boy after wrong boy,” reducing herself to “a pause, something quick before the real thing.”
A less honest writer could mine only melodrama from the lives of these seemingly self-defeated women, but Glatt plays out the ordinary details of their lives with such unadorned authenticity that you can’t help but either find yourself in them or admire them, if only for their tragic awareness of how clumsily they grab at happiness, believing that contentment lies in somehow making the right choices. Only Rachel’s mother — who, at 59, still monitors her sex appeal even as she tries to stay ahead of her persistently metastasizing cancer — appreciates the inconsequential beauty of everything, a state of grace she could not have reached were she not at the edge of death.
Rachel herself recalls that “[b]efore she got sick, my mother was a woman who was always ready to leave me.” As her health failed, she slowed down, began sewing new dresses by hand, listening. “We ate dinners together, went to movies. I listed her men who weren’t always nice by name and crude gesture. My mother apologized.” The mother — who never gets her own name — serves in her last days as an example of living less critically and more generously. Glatt only hints at whether Rachel will follow it.
Redemption comes late in the book, but not too late, through the unlikeliest of characters in the bleakest of circumstances; and as Rachel’s not-yet-finished story surges toward a new beginning, A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That ends with a burst of unsentimental hope. By looking deep into the mundane, Glatt has come up with small but valuable gems about the search for love, the will to live and the little lies humans depend on to get them through their days. It is a plain and small story, but a substantial achievement.
A GIRL BECOMES A COMMA LIKE THAT | By LISA GLATT Simon & Schuster | 304 pages | $22 hardcover