How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly

Image of How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly
Release Date: 
April 2, 2010
Grand Central Publishing
Reviewed by: 

“Life is too short, the ghost knew, for a woman to waste it on a man who did not know how to love.”

This is a very entertaining novel about personal liberation. Our protagonist is Clarissa Burden, a novelist who is burdened by being married to “an amoral and dangerous man.” Clarissa lives in an ancient home in south Florida that’s also inhabited by a family of ghosts (ghosts being the biggest trend in current fiction behind vampires) and thinking animals and insects. Fowler makes quite clear that this story of one woman gaining freedom is meant to be symbolic of something far larger: “Hers was not so much a private, primal scream as it was a release of all the vicissitudes that all women through all time had ever experienced. Subservience wasn’t their game.”

This serio-comic novel is uplifting while also being quite a fun read. Not only do we have human ghosts, we also have a ghost fly that’s in love with Clarissa—the woman who killed him—and we have circus dwarfs, mistakenly referred to by Clarissa as midgets. As with Audrey Niffenegger, Fowler saves some of her best writing for the descriptions of the ghost of Olga Villada, the first owner of the home she lives in: “Olga spun toward the middle of the room . . . She began to whirl, faster and faster . . .” Clarissa stood “in the shadow of a whirling ghost.”

Clarissa’s ancient home is “full of haunts,” but this is less disturbing to her than her husband’s lusting after other women (primarily young ones) and her difficulty in resuming her previously successful writing career. She no longer experiences “the same feeling she experienced in the old days when she was writing and writing well, when she knew the next word she typed would be not simply an okay word or a good word, but the only word in all the English language that would do.”

Clarissa leads a frustrated life of writer’s block and blocked emotions until she meets a young male writer, a prior acquaintance, who shows her the path to freedom. However, don’t fear as this tale never gets too serious or preachy. . . . In fact, it concludes with a hilarious shaggy-dog-story-type ending involving the dwarf’s circus and an adventurous dog that will make a perfect ending for a film version.

Reading How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly is like taking a nice cooling shower on a hot and muggy day in southern Florida. Refreshing!