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Catholic School Girls Rule

Jean McGarry's Latest Novel Follows The Intellectual Awakening Of A Prim, Proper, And Spoiled 1960s Young Woman

Christopher Myers

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 12/6/2006

In a few years Siri Sorenson will be a royal bitch, but right now she's just a brat. She nearly flunks out of college because she's too bored to study, unwraps a fresh cake of soap every time she showers in the dorm, and bites her little brother's hand hard enough to draw blood because he won't let her use the phone. She is pretty, privileged, and so willfully hateful it's easy to see why author and Johns Hopkins University fiction professor Jean McGarry titled her new novel about this young woman A Bad and Stupid Girl.

And it's just as easy to see, after meeting McGarry between classes at a Hopkins coffee spot, how much she enjoyed her displeasing creation. "I loved her," she beams. "I loved [Siri's] sheer obnoxiousness. I think fiction writers like obnoxious, because it's very strong." The pleasant surprise of McGarry's novel is the untapped depth of Siri's strength, and how, once she finally harnesses that obstinance to a love of learning, the explosive germination of her intellect propels her into adulthood. "This is not how she became bad and stupid," McGarry stresses. "This is what happened after."

McGarry is gracious and temperate in person, her practical chin-length bob of silver hair pinned away from her glasses with one judicious barrette. She's the kind of woman whose mature face goes translucent in unguarded moments, allowing glimpses of the teenager beneath. Perhaps it's that ageless empathy that makes college-aged characters like Siri and her roommate Esther so real. "I was thinking that most writers who are in academic settings write about faculty, who typically are not that interesting," she points out. "Every five years [my students] are different. They come from a different world. They're there at this wonderful point in their lives, where they're between being a child and an adult. They're just fantastically interesting."

The novel begins in the pre-revolutionary cusp of the 1960s, when the female heirs of "decent families" were sent to women's colleges to polish the edges of their knowledge base without damaging the ultrafeminine comportment expected of them. McGarry describes with gentle satire how Siri's mother grooms her daughter for arrival at her new school:

    Even her innermost layer of clothing was new, washed and ironed with all the tags removed. She was too slim for her first panty girdle, but wore it anyway under a clingy jersey dress. Her face felt stiff, the skin heavy under a cementlike layer of liquid foundation with a dusting of silky powder. Her eyelids were sticky, as were her lashes, and her eyes stung. She felt as she had on prom night, girdled and creamed and packed and shaved, a tight and hard-to-open package.

    With that kind of upbringing, it's easy to see why Siri is unimpressed by her dowdy roommate Esther and her clumsy home permanent, ugly bedspread, and nose-in-a-book demeanor. But when Esther offers to teach the academically floundering Siri how to study--using a textbook on the pre-Socratics as boot camp--it's a thunderbolt experience.

    Vonnegut, Barthelme, Milo Minderbinder, Dr. Laing, George Gurdjieff, or Ram Dass . . . Siri had nothing but contempt for these latecomers, the dross of the times. The modern--let alone the postwar or contemporary--had no interest for her. Everything had broken down after the French Revolution; and for that matter, the Renaissance was a shadow, a hiccup compared to its great original, and the Enlightenment, just a bland rehash of Plato and Aristotle, by less than stellar minds.

While most stories about adolescent girls' first negotiations of the adult world are about their sexual awakening, McGarry's novel instead marvels at the spreading flower of Siri and Esther's intellects--and the unforeseen consequences of having one's boundaries permanently stretched.

"One of the things I was interested in doing with this novel is to show that education isn't an altogether good experience," McGarry says. "It opens people up in ways that are unpredictable." While the formerly empty-headed Siri becomes a fierce and unrepentant intellectual, Esther slips out of the grip of her own carefully proscribed plan for the future after a music appreciation course fills her with a mystic hunger for the ineffable.

"I knew that [Esther] had to undergo some kind of experience, because she's a supremely competent person who not only can govern her own life but govern Siri's life, too, and I thought something here is going to break down. At first I thought it was going to happen through men, and then I said, No it isn't," McGarry laughs. "I think what happens is she watches Siri's explosive growth and she wants in on it. But it won't be opened to her through books because she already has that. She's almost ruined for that. Music is the unknown. She's like an egg where music is concerned. She wants to undergo that experience."

McGarry, who split her own academic career between Regis College (an all-girls Catholic college in Massachusetts, not unlike Siri and Esther's school) and Harvard via Radcliffe, doesn't see A Bad and Stupid Girl as a roman clef, specific only to her experience. In fact, the novel is almost a wish-fulfillment fantasy of every postgraduate who wishes he or she spent less time worrying about the ephemeral social dramas of early adulthood and instead focused on their passions with the maniacal abandon of someone who realizes college is wasted on the young. "These girls, in different ways, are impervious to others' views of them," McGarry says. "They're not pack animals. I admire them for that."

Unlike the students enrolled under her tutelage at Hopkins' prestigious Writing Seminars master's program, McGarry's education history--a bachelor's in psychology after switching from a math and physics major, French and Russian studies, and enough music credits to cash in on a second major if she desired, to say nothing of her stint in journalism or one-time plans for medical school--didn't point immediately to a career as novelist. When her first novel, Airs of Providence, was published in 1985, when she was in her mid-30s, she admits, "I was all over the map."

But there's no regret in her voice about her scattershot development. In fact, she recalls the fun of flipping through each semester's new rural phone book-sized catalog of courses at Harvard--and how 40 years ago it was acceptable to take a class not because it would further your career or hasten graduation but simply because it sounded interesting. "It was like the Renaissance," she says. "People still thought you could learn anything."

The flip side of that lack of limits is included in A Bad and Stupid Girl, when a second-tier professor sets his unprincipled sights on first Esther and then Siri. Nowadays, the idea of a faculty member having any involvement with a student is anathema, but Siri's encounter with the man who provides her "final exam" speaks volumes about the era in which this novel is written. "When I was a student, faculty preyed on students," McGarry says. "Preyed on them. I could tell you so many stories! To me, they're almost comical because the voraciousness was just--" McGarry's mouth gapes with the incomprehensibility of it all. "And you think of this as a simpler time, but in some ways it's a more dangerous time. You were exposed to everything."

Now that she's on the other side of academia, does she miss that experience for her students? She pauses, thinking hard. "Yeah, I think they're missing something. They're protected in a way that's absolute. I don't know if they realize that. And yet, they're unprotected in the world of employment. All of that is so dicey now. There's no room for them to play for a while, when there was plenty of room for me."

McGarry is surrounded at this coffee spot by young people the same age as Esther and Siri. After graduation, some of the students sipping lattes will become working writers, too, but most will more likely face several years--or decades--of frustration, rejection, and professional uncertainty. "That's what they face, especially people who want to be in writing," McGarry says. "And in a way, what's curious to me is they don't feel that it's unfair. Just the way we didn't feel it was unfair to be preyed upon by older men--`Oh, that's just the way the world is.' Every once in a while I want to shake them and say, `Don't just accept this.' You can't get involved in an art without allowing yourself some freedom to practice it.

"You have to know a great deal about the world to write a novel," she emphasizes. It's a declaration that is true not only for her but also for Esther and Siri, two young women who've willfully submitted to the ego-breaking process of "study"--a word that knowingly shares a Latin root with contusion--and emerged steeled and fortified on the other side. "To fill an entire novel you have to have a life behind it," McGarry says. "You have to live a little bit. You have to understand the world we're in. You need a little time to pass for that world to get small, so you can grasp it."

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