Among distant memories lingering in my brain, a few of the most vivid — lying in a hammock by a lake, contemplating a bird in a cage, watching the ocean swirl at my ankles — didn’t happen to me. I read them. Such is the accomplishment of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” and Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” novels in which the characters’ yearning is so realistic you feel yourself inside their very skin.
Molly Patterson’s debut, “Rebellion,” is just such a novel. In the esteemed tradition of Flaubert and Chopin, Patterson’s characters yearn to break free of society’s expectations of them. And, as in those earlier works, they do so subtly and so gradually that you feel you’re right there with them.
The novel covers a lot of ground — from China in the late 1800s, to the American Midwest of the 1950s, to rural China today. Patterson tells the story through three main characters: Addie, a Christian missionary; Hazel, a farm widow in Illinois; and Juanlan, a college graduate in rural China. Entire sections are dedicated to these characters, and after living in their shoes awhile, you begin to wonder how these stories are related, what the thread that weaves them together might be.
The novel begins with Addie, who with her husband, Owen, travels to China in 1892 for missionary work. Cut off from her family, unsure of her mothering skills, Addie feels she has “no real weight of her own, no center point.” But then she meets a woman named Poppy — a fellow missionary who speaks like a native, argues theology with men, samples opium so as to empathize with the addicts she’ll minister to — and Addie experiences an awakening. While Owen dismisses Poppy as “unwomanly,” Addie feels “hauled out of the depths … squeezed of all the cold water and set on the shore in the sun and the wind.”
From Addie’s story, the narrative switches to Hazel. Widowed young, Hazel grapples with managing all the machinery and acreage while raising her children alone. The first sign of Hazel’s independent streak is when she chooses to suffer a lean year rather than appease the smarmy banker who swoops in like a know-it-all to sell her land. Alone on the prairie, Hazel accepts the help of neighbors Lydie and George (all while taking more from them than home-cooked meals and free child care).
From there the story moves on to Juanlan, a college graduate with “a live wire inside her, a little burning blue coil.” Stuck in rural China, Juanlan longs for a larger life, a larger city, but she stays home to care for her ailing father and her pregnant sister-in-law. Her voice is sharp and lively as she moves through her days tutoring a politician’s son, helping out at her parents’ hotel, chaperoning a visiting American, and keeping an eye on her wolfish employer, a man who is clearly outmatched.
While there’s a lot of domestic life in this book — sickness and cooking, peas and lard and meat pie — there’s also sensuous writing depicting the struggle between obligation and passion.
As with the characters of Flaubert and Chopin, Patterson’s women don’t always act in ways that are socially acceptable. In the hands of a lesser writer, these defiant acts might appear disreputable, but in Patterson’s hands how Hazel and Addie and Juanlan respond to the live wires inside them makes you think: Yeah, she had to do that. Good for her.
This is a beautiful book — fast-moving, sensuous and vividly detailed.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Minneapolis writer and reviewer.
By: Molly Patterson.
Publisher: Harper, 548 pages, $26.99.
Event: 7 p.m. Aug. 11, the Local Store, Eau Claire, Wis.