The Pull of It

The Pull of It

By Wendy J. Fox
Underground Voices, 2016, 255 pages

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Coming to terms with the fact that one is in a satisfactory but unrewarding, and perhaps loveless, marriage is as common a predicament in literature as it is in reality. But what if a dissatisfied spouse were to take a solo vacation thousands of miles away from her husband and child, to a country with an unfamiliar language and culture—and to become so deeply drawn into the possibilities there, of a new life and new loves, that she can’t bring herself to return home? In her début novel The Pull of It, Wendy J. Fox takes us through just such a journey, one that results in both new challenges and personal discovery.

At the start of the novel, the central character, Laura, has recently lost her administrative job at a university, a situation that sinks her into depression and gives her more time to contemplate the growing distance she feels between herself and her husband, Julian. At one point in the novel, Laura reflects,

Between Julian and me there was the obvious, the most ordinary and common kind of discontent. Caught in the loop of working and childrearing and keeping up appearances, real life breaks down.

Sometimes … I would remember when we laced hands in a bar, what felt like a hundred years ago. A stranger, who pushed his body into mine, who became a lover, a husband, the father of our child.

Hoping that it might ease Laura’s depression, Julian suggests that she take a few weeks of vacation, assuring her that he can hold down the fort at home and look after their daughter, Anastasia (Anne). Laura agrees, and after narrowing her choices to Istanbul, Dublin, Paris, or Rome, she picks Istanbul, the place that feels most different to her and that her mother likes least. (“Don’t you think it’s dangerous?” her mother remarks. “I won’t come there to claim your body.”)

When she arrives in Istanbul, Laura is captivated by the city almost instantly, and Fox writes about her enchantment vividly, giving readers a memorable sense of place. Laura is especially taken by the regular calls to prayer:

When the mosques go off all at once, it is like the chatter of birds or children all speaking at once in a room, or an orchestra warming up. It’s a cacophony, but it is holy.

I had never been a religious woman, but I listened to the call, and the voices did speak to me, saying, Please, please. You have come so far, now come inside to pray.

When it is time for her to return to the United States, Laura finds that she just can’t: “I felt drawn, and like nothing I’d ever experienced before, a clear feeling that there was something I needed to find out, and that it was here in this place that I’d chosen mostly because my mother hadn’t liked the idea of it.”

Laura calls her younger brother, asking him to tell Julian that she has missed her flight and that she will be in touch. Then she heads to the countryside, where she believes her money will last longer than it would in the city. (From then on, Laura stays in touch with an understandably alarmed Julian through occasional emails and phone calls, and she sends postcards to Anne regularly. Laura tries to reassure both husband and child that, eventually, she will return home.)

It is in the countryside where, for me, the novel finds its heart—especially through the friendship that Laura forms with Yasemin, the manager of a guesthouse in a small village. Yasemin allows Laura to board for free at the guesthouse in return for helping with cleaning and other chores.

Working side by side every day, the women soon form a bond that feels closer than any Laura has recently experienced in the States, with the exception of the one with her daughter, Anne. (More on this later.) The friendship begins with small kindnesses that Yasemin extends to Laura—for example, lovely orange curtains that she sews for Laura’s room, and a mobile phone that Yasemin gives Laura so that she can stay connected to the larger world. The friendship deepens as Laura learns that she and Yasemin share a past of lost loves, and of being judged for certain life choices.

In writing about Yasemin and Laura’s friendship, Fox movingly captures one of those rare yet life-altering situations in which chance and circumstance lead to bonds that become as strong as, or perhaps stronger than, those formed through blood or through more deliberate choice. “Sometimes,” Laura observes of her relationship with Yasemin, “you share something bigger than blood.”

The blood relationship that feels the most fraught for Laura is the one with her daughter. Throughout her trip to Turkey, Laura grapples with the conflict between her need for a period of self discovery and her guilt over separating herself from her daughter. Fox discussed this tension in an interview with Mark Stevens for the Rocky Mountain Writer podcast.

In the interview, Fox said that while most readers will understand why a woman might leave her husband, it is much harder for them to understand why she might take a break from parenting. (Almost certainly, any husband making the same decisions would be treated more forgivingly.)

Fox commented, “It’s hard for readers sometimes to look at where Laura is emotionally. So I tried to spend time building empathy towards her … so people would understand her as a complex character.”

My personal view is that Fox succeeded on this score, and I hope that her writing about Laura’s struggle will encourage open-minded reflection on the kinds of deep dissatisfaction that are all too common in life, and that we ignore at our peril.

In closing, I want to also recommend Fox’s story collection, The Seven Stages of Anger, which I reviewed earlier, and which includes stories about Laura that were adapted for The Pull of It. Like Fox’s novel, the stories in The Seven Stages of Anger are beautifully crafted and perceptive, and well worth a read.

Would My Pick be Your Pick?

If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ Writing about tensions in romantic relationships
▪ Vivid and insightful writing about place
▪ Writing about family life and family conflicts