Allegra Goodman: “La Vita Nuova”

"La Vita Nuova"
by Allegra Goodman
originally published in the May 3, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.

Click for a larger image.

I still haven’t read the comments below, but I did see in Kevin’s that he considered this possibly the best story of the year so far. I completely enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I’d put it above some of the others. Still, this is a wonderfully captured narrative of quiet desperation growing more quiet and more desperate.

The story begins when Amanda’s fiancé leaves her: “You are a very dark person,” he said when he left. There is then a great scene where Amanda, who teaches art at a local school, takes her unused wedding dress for the children to embellish and paint. The principal, of course, didn’t appreciate her bringing her private life to the school, and Amanda was not hired on the next year. Instead, she becomes the babysitter of one of the boys in the school.

What I liked most about this story was the way Goodman makes the reader feel the quiet little jabs, none of them overly devastating but collectively they create such a heavy cloud, wonderfully rendered in a soft, unshowy prose that sometimes brings in Dante.

This is what we read this magazine for.

7 thoughts on “Allegra Goodman: “La Vita Nuova”

  1. I thought I would read this story online and start the discussion since Trevor is obviously very busy.

    I thought this story was excellent (perhaps the best of the year) and a very good example of how to use the format.

    The first half of the story establishes the narrator’s powerlessness — her fiance’s departure, her offering of the wedding dress as a canvas, her loss of her job.

    The second half explores an equal powerlessness with the baby-sitting job, a father who is looking for a cheap affair, a mother who is distracted.

    But where Goodman makes this an excellent story in my opinion is in the images of the Russian dolls and the way that the narrator uses them to characterize the people who are influencing her. The descriptions come in very tight prose but they are reflective of how we all would like to categorize and put in boxes (or dolls) those who exercise power over us.

    For this reader, that made this an excellent story. Not earth-shaking (how many stories can ever be that) but a very interesting example of how to look at the world. Certainly worth reading if you haven’t read it yet.

  2. Thanks Kevin! I appreciate your covering for me while I’m coming back up for air!

    Also, I didn’t read your full comment, but I saw that you think it is “perhaps the best of the year,” which makes me excited! Of course, I still have the Doctorow before it, but I’ll get them both done soon!

    By the way, I’m looking at William Maxwell for this weekend’s Clock at the Biltmore. He’s got a whole series of stories in The New Yorker.

  3. I agree with KfC. This story was lovely.

    First of all, it was a huge relief to finally read a New Yorker story that was based on ideas and mature thinking rather than show-offy writing or some other stylistic jiggery-pokery.

    One thing I liked was the fact that we only get isolated comments from the ex-fiancé. We never really learn from the narrator or any other source about the details of the break-up, so we’re left to evaluate the fiancé’s statements (“You’re always sad.” “It’s hard to be with you.” “If you ever stopped to listen, then you would understand.”) against what we’re shown of Amanda’s life and actions.

    I also think the relationship with Nathaniel is well drawn and I found myself reading the last few paragraphs with something like suspense.

    I give this one an A.

  4. I agree with your observation, Joe, that part of what makes this story succeed is the way that Goodman deliberately leaves parts of her narrative incomplete (the “hidden” nature of the inner Russian dolls is a good reflection of that).

    And I fully agree that is wonderful to finally have a story that does not seem more like an exercise in author self-indulgence.

  5. A wonderful, spare and poignant story–not a wasted word. Amanda and Nathaniel remain with me…. I sent a copy to a friend.

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