Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking, by Aoibheann Sweeney is an enjoyable read; I breezed through it in just a couple of days, which is unusual for me. Which is not to say that it’s light reading, necessarily, just that it’s a book I was happy to spend hours with. My copy came recently as a review copy from Penguin.The novel tells the story of Miranda, a young girl who lives first on an island in Maine with her father and later, after she finishes High School, in Manhattan. Her mother died somewhat mysteriously when she was three, leaving Miranda and her father on their own, although they are joined at times by Mr. Blackwell, a friend from the town across the bay. The father is working on a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but as time passes, it becomes clear that this is a project that will probably never be complete. It is a pretense of work that keeps him occupied and give him a reason to live in such isolation.
About the first quarter of the book takes place in Maine, covering Miranda’s entire childhood, and then her father arranges for her to work at the Institute for Classical Studies in Manhattan amongst old friends of his. Once there, she struggles to make her way in a strange city and to absorb the new information she learns about her parents, and also about herself.
Miranda’s relationship with her father is one of the novel’s central story lines; the father spends most of his time lost in his studies and has no practical sense and little skill in maintaining a household, and so Miranda, with the help of Mr. Blackwell, learns early how to cook and care for the house and how to navigate across the bay on her own to get to school. She learns how to type so she can type up her father’s manuscript. She spends so much time alone with her father and devotes so much time to caring for him, and yet he is emotionally remote, caught up in the past and living with secrets that Miranda discovers only when she goes away.
Miranda’s father reads to her from his translation of Ovid often enough that the tales in Metamorphoses come to be familiar, and she tells several of the stories throughout the book (it’s in first person from Miranda’s point of view). They become a way for her to think about her own metamorphosis, or lack thereof, as she grows up curious about change and yet longing for things to stay the way they are. Ovid’s stories are about desire and its transformations, and they become the lens through which Miranda views the changes desire wreaks in others and in herself:
The tales in Metamorphoses rarely ended happily; the process of transformation, of hands turning into claws and feathers sprouting on shoulders, was sometimes a punishment and sometimes a reprieve. But mostly it was a compromise of some sort, a way to negotiate the chasm between desire and mortality, between human nature and human need.
There are many mysteries in the book — what exactly happened to Miranda’s mother? why is her father so reclusive? what exactly is the nature of his relationship to Mr. Blackwell? — some of which get resolved and others of which don’t. One of the most intriguing mysteries for Miranda is the mystery of desire itself — what it is and what it makes people do.
As in all first-person narratives, the pleasure of the reading lies in the reader’s response to the storyteller. Miranda speaks with a voice that is vulnerable and questioning, but there’s a toughness too, and even a kind of reticence — her life has not been easy, but she doesn’t spend her energy mourning it so much as trying to understand it.
The book was a pleasure to read — smart and meditative, with a narrator that enjoyed spending time with.