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The One I Love section in MsLexia

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This review of Net of Jewels by Ellen Gilchrest was published in MsLexia in October 2008 in their The One I Love section, in which female writers talk about a book that has influenced them as a woman and as a writer.

Net of Jewels by Ellen Gilchrest

This book is so addictive I’ve read it countless times. Every time I pick it up, I seem to end up engulfed again. The momentum has taken me, a few times, right round, from the last page to the first and off again. Because it’s like a net that gets untangled, and in it, as the title might suggest, lie the glistening and the sparkling, those pages filled with jewels; decorated with references to philosophy, poetry, literature and jazz.

I’m not going to give you the plot. That’s not the point. It’s 1950s USA. She’s nineteen and she wants to be a writer. It’s a bildungsroman through and through, and I found it in the house one day. It was probably summer, and I was probably bored, and somewhere in my early teens I picked it up and started to read. And that’s where those feelings of fate, discovery and attachment come in, and that’s where they’ve stayed; bound to this hardback, this wandering thing, a novel about endless new beginnings.

That is the life of Rhoda Manning; a girl so malleable to her father’s wishes that she spends her life getting shipped around from place to place. “I don’t know where I live,” she says, and, having lived in four countries myself, I know exactly how she feels.

As Rhoda grows up the world becomes illuminated and that’s where the sheltering walls of her privileged upbringing start to fall apart. She oscillates between dreams and despair, hope and loss, achievement and failure. Life pushes us down, then lifts us up, then lets us fall again. And never is it quite as delicious as when we punctuate it with music, poetry and friends; those things that make pain even more unbearable and love more potent, our understanding of every moment more overwhelming, in some ways more fulfilling and in all that is the opportunity to intoxicate ourselves with experiences, to “create our own dazzling lives,” as she says.

“Even the Greeks knew you had to suffer to be wise,” says Rhoda, and that was the lesson in here, for the woman and writer in me.

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