Love (and soda pop) in the time of Spanish flu

Novel

October 09, 2005|By DIANE SCHARPER | DIANE SCHARPER,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Wickett's Remedy

Myla Goldberg

Doubleday / 336 pages

Wickett's Remedy, Myla Goldberg's second novel, takes a feel-good, pat-on-the-back look at life and love, even though it's set during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

Lydia Kilkenny, a poor Irish Catholic from South Boston, meets and marries Henry Wickett, a Boston Brahmin and medical student, in 1918. Prompted by the outbreak of the Spanish flu, Henry starts a mail-order business based on a tonic whose secret ingredients come to Lydia in a dream via her deceased grandmother.

But the contents of the cough syrup-sized bottle do not have a medicinal value. Their healing power lies in the letter that accompanies each order of the tonic. Believing that people get sick because of loneliness and lack of sympathy, Henry advises his customers in the letter to get plenty of fresh air and to be kind to themselves. His messages have an ameliorative effect, even if based on nothing more than the placebo principle. Unfortunately, he doesn't make money with this venture, but he does accrue several pen pals.

With its fey characters and wry tone, the story is, if nothing else, nostalgic. Set in a time when families, especially Irish Catholic families, were closely aligned with their churches, the novel spreads whimsy with every word, making happiness look easy - at first. Goldberg, (best-selling author of Bee Season) perfectly captures the ambience of early 20th-century Catholic piety, as in her take on sex: Lydia is assigned to read Marriage and Parenthood: the Catholic Ideal by her pastor, Father O'Brian. Although the book did not tell Lydia anything that she and her friends had not deduced by the time they were 14, it did say that it wasn't a sin "for a husband and wife to enjoy each others' bodies while engaging in their Catholic duty."

When Lydia and Henry try to engage in this duty, Henry, believing that "nothing rendered the body more beautiful than Latin," whispers the Latin names of body parts to his bride, stopping only when Lydia tells him that Latin reminds her too much of Sunday Mass.

Lydia's troubles begin when Henry comes down with the Spanish flu (which killed more Americans in 10 months than died in all 20th-century wars), and his partner, Quentin Driscoll adds soda to the original tonic - at Lydia's suggestion. Soon QD Soda, unlike Wickett's Remedy, makes Driscoll, but not Lydia, rich.

Although Driscoll is one of the novel's villains, the main antagonist is the Spanish flu, at least as far as it concerns Lydia, who after her husband's untimely death takes a job as a nurse in the 1918 Gallups Island study of the Spanish flu and meets Frank Bentley.

With several plot lines, each containing subplots, the novel spins bits and pieces of reality and fantasy into a literary kaleidoscope. Goldberg uses actual and invented newspaper articles, invented letters from an unnamed father to his son, imagined excerpts from a newsletter about a product that's a take-off on Coca-Cola, and commentary appearing in the margin of almost every page. Is this innovation? Or is it gimmickry?

It's especially hard to know what to make of the comments in the margin. Initially, they seem to be an editor's notes. But when a voice indicates that these are "Our whisperings&such as are heard in life's interstices: in dreams, in sickness, and in the moments preceding sleep or waking," it's apparent that these notations are the words of ghosts.

An element in the telling of the story, they play the role of a Greek chorus: giving insights into what's happening; foreshadowing the novel's direction; serving as a collective memory; relating secret information; correcting the characters' (usually Lydia's) perceptions; and, in an ironic way, adding believability to the plot.

But they also make it difficult to know what's factual and what's imagined, especially because Goldberg blurs the line between the two. Shifting gears from actual to imagined and from present to future, the novel isn't told so much as it tries to tell itself through a convergence of plot lines, puns, and subtle connections between ideas. Readers have to decide who is saying what and to whom, while they read between the lines to understand what's being said. All of which results in a concoction that, although fanciful, has too much fizz.

Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. She is editing an anthology of memoirs for the Helen Keller Foundation.

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