Like a Letter from a Friend
One of the joys of “Starting Out in the Evening” is the lovely interconnectedness of it—the integrity, if you will, of a story that refers to itself over and over like a beautiful carpet whose central figure keeps appearing in subtly new forms. Mise en abymes? In this story, there are many, best beloved.
What do the three central characters want? Another way to express this—what’s missing for them? These questions drive the story.
On the surface, Heather Wolfe would seem to desire fame. “She had grandiose daydreams…she wanted to have her thesis written before her twenty-fifth birthday and a book contract in her hands before her twenty-sixth.” She is willing to use her sexuality to get what she wants, dressing in a provocative way and flirting with Schiller at their first meeting to get him to help her.
But I think her character is much more nuanced, more complex. Two of Schiller’s novels basically made her a person. (More on this below). There’s not a lot of information about her childhood and family (there doesn’t need to be) but one gets the sense she was a lonely person who yearned for connection and found it through reading. “During the years she’d been reading his work, he had so often helped her understand herself that she’d sometimes felt as if he cared about her.” I think that her thesis is more a reason to meet Schiller than an end in itself. Sure—she schemes and imagines writing a book based on the thesis, thereby achieving literary fame, but she also believes (admittedly in a narcissistic way) that she will save Schiller from obscurity.
Schiller is very clear from the beginning—he must finish the novel he’s been laboring over for years, finish before dying. “My only remaining goal in life is to finish it.” He initially experiences Heather’s request for help as a distraction and says no but then reverses course and agrees after deciding Heather’s project might help him get the acclaim that has eluded him. Is there more? Is he attracted to her? Yes. However, her youth and attractiveness makes him aware of the changes age has brought him. Ironically, he feels old and more decrepit around her.
Ariel’s tory takes a bit of time to emerge. At first, we see her being jealous of Heather’s influence on Schiller. “When Ariel had returned to New York last fall, the rock she thought she could cling to was her father, his love of her, and his need of her.”
What develops is that Ariel also feels the burden of getting older—she’s thirty-nine. “When you’re in your twenties, when you’re in your early thirties, you can tell yourself a nice story about your life: ‘I’m young, I have promise. I have everything going for me.’ But when you can’t tell yourself that story anymore, what are you? You’re story-less.” Ariel is story-less—and that’s an interesting condition in a book about writing. There’s a suggestion that Ariel feels the absence of being a mother, and that biological age is limiting this possibility. In fact, Ariel is struggling with a narrowing of the possibilities in life. She’s returned to New York City to care for her father, but in many ways, he cares for her. Yet, she’s aware of his age and his mortality. She feels she’s competing with Heather for her father’s attention and is resentful.
Let’s look more closely at Heather.
Schiller first published novel is entitled Tenderness and is the book Heather discovers and devours at age sixteen. It changes her life, and that is one of the themes of “Starting Out in the Evening,” powerful books mixing with particular periods in one’s life. “Sometimes, said Thoreau, you can date a new era in your life from the reading of a book. Heather dated an era in her life from the reading of Tenderness.”
Tenderness concerns an American couple spending a year in Paris. The wife, Ellen, is completing a dissertation on existentialism and is absorbed by existentialist ideas, resolving she must change her life. She decides to remain in France, risking her marriage and academic career. What she’s giving up is much clearer to her than what she’s seeking. Near the end, she learns she’s pregnant, but that condition doesn’t change her mind.
Tenderness made Heather want to take responsible for her own life. “It was as if Schiller had explained her life to her in a more sympathetic way than she’d been able to explain it to herself.” Later, she visits Paris and finds the book has formed her picture of the city.
Two Marriages is Schiller’s second published novel. Heather reads it when she’s having a difficult time, trying to decide whether or not to go to law school, as her mother is pressuring her to.
In the book, one of the characters is a young man whose father was a gifted sculptor who died young. The young man believes his duty is to champion his father’s reputation. The turning point for the character is a conversation with his mother who says the only battle he needs to fight is his own. Liberation, not happiness ensues. To Heather, this story is “like a letter from a friend.” Her path becomes clearer; she rejects law school.
Heather’s adult life has, in a way, been directed by Leonard Schiller’s writing. She must discover the difference between the Schiller the imagined author, and Schiller the real human. The beginning is very powerful. Heather meets Schiller at a restaurant; she brings all her hopes and fantasies, her image of Schiller as the younger man who saved her, who cares for her. The reality is that, in the present, he’s old, fat, mortal. “The man of her dreams.”
Both of these novels (which are, of course, imaginary) certainly reflect the story of Heather, but also of Ariel, who has to make the decision to step out from her father’s shadow to find happiness.