Can a woman of 60 just be coming of age?
Better late than never.
Ana Turns unspools in the course of 24 hours in the lifetime of a NYC private book editor, wife, mother, child, lover, and friend on the occasion of her 60th birthday. Ana might seem to be a poster child for a mature, worldly, modern, mid-life, professional woman and mother of two. But appearances, like covers of books, can be deceiving.
The book chapters of Ana Turns make for a prism of interlocking stories, each featuring (sometimes more than once) one of the diverse and disparate characters that constitute Lisa Gornick’s novel. Her technique, in this and other works, brilliantly assembles a literary quilt wherein each of the composite stories, like quilt “patches,” may stand alone in their artistry, with the stunning whole more than the sum of its parts.
We enter Ana’s life with a portrayal of Jean, her acerbic, divorced mother, who pounds her with debasing and demanding emails wrapped with an air of disdain, opposite of how she adores and idolizes her son, Ana’s brother, George. On this, her birthday, her mother emails a detailed accounting, befitting the actuary she was, of the cost of raising Ana, and how the money could have better been spent.
Ana, herself, is a tortured soul, beseeched by doubt, ambivalence, confusion, guilt, and regret. Yet she is drawn to the kindness that comes of tolerance and forgiveness, heralding the “turn(ing)” ahead. Sixty becomes her exit point from the chrysalis that has firmly bound her, alone in the middle of others, without a workable compass to navigate a life. The grace needed as an anodyne to self-reproach appears nowhere to be found.
Gornick’s solar system of principal characters who make up Ana’s life include her husband Henry, an anesthesiologist who rushes home to anaesthetize himself by vaping cannabis to quiet the pain in his back, and surely elsewhere. Their marriage is barren of sex and affection, one of convenience and safety. Then there is her brother, George, well-heeled and not to be trusted, who rearranges the beneficiaries of his (and Ana’s) father’s will, bypassing what was to be her inheritance onto her two children. High on Ana’s perplexity about “what to say, what to do” list is her son, Simon, whose underlying gender identity has surfaced and taken root, so that he is taking steps to have his body conform to whom he is.
Lance is Ana’s lover of seven years, a journalist fixated on the historic destruction of Bamian Buddhas more so than his marriage. Rolf, Ana’s father, is divorced from her mother, estranged, and with no love lost for his ex, Ana’s mother. He sings to his own tune with bravado, a successful architect who fled Europe and his past during the Second World War.
What is astounding is how Gornick assembles a quilted ensemble of these, and other characters, in a way that does not bode well, you may think. Yet this is the opening act of lives and life in motion, heralding the novel’s denouement, which is, indeed, broadcast by its title.
The group gathers for Ana’s birthday party, except for Lance who is on another adventure, not attentive to his longstanding lover, and seemingly beyond redemption in any case. Each is an independent patch on the Ana quilt; when fully arrayed, they portray the DNA, the genetic foundation of who Ana is and who she can and will become.
DNA, however, requires its messenger RNA, the code needed for an ever-changing life. The characters in Gornick’s Ana Turns are splendid messengers. They are the code that will activate Ana’s coming of age.
The birthday dinner is where Ana’s transformation happens, like a rainbow after a storm. Her mother is not only a bitter façade. She harbors the pain of a hard and lonely life that is seeking comfort from the hearts of others, especially Ana. Her brother is still her brother, living not by Ana’s view of the world, but his own, which has its deliberate purpose. Henry can emerge from his drugged vapor and provide care and affection. Her son is becoming a person who finally can feel at ease with his body and identify. Even Lance has his badges of courage.
These are the characters, the RNA, that activate Ana’s conversion from a self-debasing, unfulfilled, and judgmental woman to one who can turn away from the darkness and toward the light. A light made visible by forgiveness and grace.
As we close the last page of Ana Turns, we realize how Gornick, in her wise and masterful prose, has shown us that it is family, the ménage it always is, that forms the world—our world, not only Ana’s.