“A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl” by Jean Thompson

December 2nd, 2018  |  Published in November 2018

The often underrated or undernoticed Jean Thompson’s back with another of her superb family sagas, this one called “A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl”, and it’s splendid. Thompson, who lives in Illinois, has been writing family sagas about people who live in the Upper Midwest, in cities of, oh, 100,000 people or so; they’re not small towns, and they’re not big cities, and she’s a master at probing and  understanding both the dynamics of the Midwestern family and the psychology of both hope and of disappointment. I’ve long been surprised that Thompson doesn’t have a larger following, which she richly deserves and has earned.

Thompson examines the lives and inner worlds of three generations of women in one family, but she’s not prone to cliches, and “Cloud” is in no way a journey from an oppressed grandmother to a liberated, independent granddaughter, as one might have expected in this era of increasing politically correct fiction. Life, Thompson understands, is far more complex than surface cliches, and place and character interact in fascinating ways.

The grandmother, whom we meet as an ageing widow, may have been the most nearly independent of the three women, having had her own career teaching in the university, which dominates the town depicted, as had her husband.  How these two meet, and how and why she does marry her much older husband is fascinating, surprising and a tough choice: unwanted pregnancies, let us say, pop up twice in this same family, and women marry to avoid the shame of an out of wedlock child, although it’s clear that her husband hasn’t any idea that he’s not the father (at the risk of being a spoiler here). Theirs is a rocky marriage of sorts, as, under different circumstances, this woman might not have married at all.

Her daughter, thus, sees marriage and having a family as her only choice, having lived with a cold and distant mother: her behavior is reactive.   Her very clever husband manages to alienate all of his wife’s friends; she grew up in this town, is well known in the university; Thompson’s superb at explicating how people who grow up in not big cities often remain friendly–or , perhaps, feel stuck with one another–throughout their lives.  The lure of “away” pulls one way, and the tug of “home” pulls in the opposite direction: every teenager, no doubt, in every such town, swears to leave it, and the majority stay and pretty much lead lives similar to their parents’. These ambivalences of growing up in the Midwest in mid-sized cities are Thompson’s most astute areas of concern; she knows her characters and their sense of place (and how one effects the other) admirably (in other novels of Thompson’s, the cities are in places like Iowa: I know of no other writer who tackles this particular territory as well as Thompson does; Jane Smiley sometimes veers in this direction, too).

This second generation will produce two children, neither of whom has left town; the daughter (the third of the three women) is working part-time in a yoga studio and part-time in a health food grocery: Thompson understands the liberalism with which our millennials are
reared but also their difficulty in launching a life outside the hothouse of home.  Her brother is in a band and devolves increasingly into the world of street drugs, and Thompson examines the family dynamics of the stolen money from the mother’s purse all the way through the various rehabs that the son will go through; the father finds the whole rehab “industry” to be a scam, more so when his son doesn’t seem to improve much.

So Thompson examines a family in which each generation of women reacts to the ways in which she was reared by her mother, to great effect, and with a magnifying glass of intense heat.  This is not a happy or content or satisfied family, and, given that Thompson’s a realist,
much goes wrong and doesn’t right itself as the novel moves into the worsening of the son’s drug habit, his sister’s ambivalence about being dragged in as his caregiver, and the like.  I have yet to encounter another American writer delving into this terrain with such acuity, sensitivity
and realism as Jean Thompson.  All will not/does not end well, which is rather a relief, as the three women intergenerationally are all leery of one another, and have the same inability to trust and to love, or their loves are utterly codependent and unhealthy.

No one gets a T-shirt for doing well in Rehab.  The middle generation of women is “the cloud in shape of a girl”, which should tell you volumes about her identity, or lack thereof, in this sometimes raw but always honest novel about the state of a “typical” American family in 2018.
It’s a terrific read

–Daniel Brown

Leave a Response