The Resurrection of Joan Ashby: A Novel

Image of The Resurrection of Joan Ashby: A Novel
Release Date: 
August 28, 2017
Flatiron Books
Reviewed by: 

“A stunning debut novel. The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas encompasses a wealth of superb writing, mature insights, and breathtaking risks . . .”

A stunning debut novel. The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas encompasses a wealth of superb writing, mature insights, and breathtaking risks. Joan Ashby emerges as a substantial and realistic character; you can scarcely believe this is a feat of fiction and not biography. The book is not without some minor flaws—a kitschy ending, too many interruptions to the narrative with extraneous material, and some less than credible synchronistic events.

But even these glitches cannot mar the impact and power of the novel.

Wolas places under the microscope and through decades the nuances and expectations of marriage, where two people who love one another yet never truly know each other, gradually grow into two different people. She also microscopically examines motherhood and parent-child bonds.

Joan Ashby, in her early twenties was a rising, celebrated author of two international, bestselling short story collections. Since girlhood she had plotted the path of lifelong authorship: “Read great literature every day. Write every day. Rewrite every day. Avoid crushes and love. Do not entertain any offer of marriage. Never ever have children. Never allow anyone to get in my way.”

Surprising herself Joan falls in love with a handsome eye surgeon, Martin Manning, and marries him once he promises to never to ask her to bear children. Yet she soon falls pregnant and agonizes: “If she had this baby, it meant a second baby, Joan understood that now; the only discussion would be one of timing. Martin would want to create a foundation of family, Manning children . . . The opposite of how Joan lived her life, the opposite of what she required for her work. She knew other women managed both, had for centuries. But most of those women desired motherhood . . . she did not want motherhood, had no underlying faith in her ability to negotiate the enormity of the obligation, had no interest in the supposed majesty of the experience.”

Daniel is born and to her surprise, Joan falls in love with him, dotes on him, and gives up writing (despite her publisher’s admonishments) to tend to him. A strange, young woman, Fancy, enters their lives as Daniel’s nanny. She and Joan bond, and as Joan leaves her writing life behind, she embraces young motherhood, all the commitments of domestic life, and together with Fancy sets up flower and vegetable gardens, orchards and glens on the Manning four-acre property. Several years later Eric is born and mothering him proves to be much more difficult for Joan; she does not bond with this baby as she has with Daniel. Eric is born with an independent streak.

The narrative takes a darker twist when—years later—11-year-old Daniel, a voracious and advanced reader, who has been writing stories about a squirrel named Henry that garners his parents’ praise and pulls the mother-son bond ever tighter, suddenly discovers that his mother is a famous writer. The fact that she hid this part of her life from him, never said a word about her writing, is a shock that ends his burgeoning promise to follow on her path, and strains their bond. This sin of omission (for which she has a well thought through rationale) sets in motion a series of events that a decade later will shatter Joan’s life.

The Manning family is brilliant: Joan the fêted writer; Martin, a pioneer in eye surgery practices that he shares internationally; Daniel, venture capitalist and graduate of Wharton Business School; and Eric, the child Joan could never truly connect with, who drops out of school at 13 when his computer coding skills lead to the creation of a start-up hi-tech company that he sells and at age 22 is a billionaire.

In Wolas’ pages, Joan’s fully embodied motherhood, despite her ambiguous doubts about her role, are brilliantly accurate. Every mother who has sacrificed her ambition and talents for motherhood will find she is reading about herself. Every husband and wife whose marriage is torn apart will gain new perspectives from reading this novel. Every adult child who wonders about their parents’ relationship to one another and to themselves and their siblings will find a mirror shard here.

After a major bombshell blows the family apart, Joan leaves the Manning home in the Virginia suburbs and heads alone to Dharmashala, India, a place and country that has long fascinated her. Here she works hard to reclaim her shattered sense of self: “She is returning to her own beginning, in solitude, writing away—does she want to alter the rhythm, the joy she is at last experiencing again? Her engrained instinct is to keep everything to herself, to keep the facets of her world separated. Like a port-wine birthmark staining the skin over her heart—even if she could remove the mark, laser it away somehow, it would leave behind an outline, a ghost of what she was born into, of the child she became, of the adult who emerged from the ice and flames.”

On one of her excursions into the Himalayan foothills Joan climbs into a temple dug and shaped deep in the rock in the eighth century. She finds herself overcome by the chiseled perfection of the innermost sanctum. She kneels in the stone temple and asks what is she doing precisely:

“Working in words, trying to hurtle herself into her future, undecided about whether, or how extensive, an amputation of her own life is required? She is kneeling in this stone temple, thinking how hard stone is, how it endures for eternity, and when she rises, she knows she is not prepared to leave this remarkable Indian world, not ready to step back into the small world of Virginia, to be with Martin.”

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby is a remarkable achievement. Cherise Wolas is deserving of the laudatory praise her novel is receiving. A rare book such as this comes along only once in a long while.