Her 1998 debut, “Animal Husbandry,” which inspired the movie “Someone Like You,” “was about rejection and moving in with a womanizer,” says Zigman. “Check!” When she wrote “Dating Big Bird” (2000), she was actually worried that she would have to have a child on her own, and “Her” (2002) was about her husband’s very real and very beautiful ex-wife. The 2020 novel “Separation Anxiety,” says Zigman, “was about a woman who keeps her dog strapped to her in a carrier, exactly like a certain novelist who shall not be named.”
Laura Zigman’s ‘Separation Anxiety’ deals with middle-aged loneliness with the perfect blend of sadness and humor
Therefore, it is not surprising that drama is at the center of “Small World” happened in real life too.
Zigman’s oldest sister, born with a rare bone disease, died at the age of 7. In Zigman’s fictional performance, Mellishman’s middle daughter dies of cerebral palsy at the age of 10, leading to an estrangement between Joyce and Lydia, the two survivors. Decades later, after 30 years on opposite coasts, Lydia moves into Joyce’s apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Both women are newly divorced. One hopes that the other will heal childhood wounds. Spoiler alert: a big chance.
“I started ‘Small World’ by imagining the myriad ways these sisters would press each other,” Zigman tells me, “and how their own needs, overshadowed in childhood, would affect their relationships as adults — in their now broken marriages and each other.”
Showcasing Zigman’s emotional range, “Small World” is seasoned with the weight of its real-life origins. The novel is as touching as it is funny, as provocative as it is witty, and it is terribly relatable.
Is there a sibling alive who hasn’t felt simultaneously twinned, and terribly dissimilar, to a person who shares not only their formative history and family tree, but their DNA? “That’s what sisters do,” Joyce tells a friend. “We mess with each other, make each other jealous, punish each other for reasons we don’t even understand.”
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In a novel, as in life, the essence of a character is best revealed in the act of solving a problem. To that end, Zigman throws protagonist Joyce and her sister into a figurative wrestling ring with a thoroughly modern predicament: the sparring sisters’ upstairs neighbors, Stan and Sonia, have turned their living room into a yoga studio whose sound effects destroy Joyce’s inner peace. Students go stomp, stomp up the stairs; slap, slap go their rugs on the uncarpeted floor. Aggressive Joyce screams in Defcon mode. Passive (or is it passive-aggressive?) Lydia secretly befriends Stan and Sonja and becomes a regular visitor to their studio.
Outraged at discovering Lydia’s betrayal, Joyce calls her yogi neighbor and outlaw sister. “Sonia enters quietly, long hair pulled back in her usual loose bun, soft white pants that float that make her look like she’s floating to the couch instead of walking on her feet.” Joyce threatens to report Stan and Sonia to the landlord and the city, providing the perfect setup for a classic Zigman social satire skit.
“Why would you do that?” – Sonia asks.
“Because. it’s. Illegal,” barks Joyce.
“Joyce, this is Cambridge,” Sonia retorts. “Also known as the People’s Republic of Cambridge. Home of anti-war protesters, civil rights fighters and folk music lovers. Free thinkers. Rule breakers. … Maybe you could skip this, if you came up and tried the lecture.”
“You carry a lot of emotional weight. I feel it.”
“We should do that, Joyce,” Lydia interjects. “Maybe we’ll learn something about ourselves and about each other. Maybe that will be the thing that finally changes our relationship.”
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Seething behind a slammed bedroom door after a failed peace talk, Joyce muses, “I’m tired of trying to get her to see me. It’s like childhood again: Nothing I want or need matters.”
Never a fan of emotional restraint, Joyce jumps out of bed and scribbles an eviction notice, which she slips under Lydia’s bedroom door—an impulse she regrets when the plot reveals character-altering family secrets, past and present, at the last minute. It’s a pleasure to meet a kinder, gentler Joyce, though the price for her redemption is high.
In the book “Acknowledgments,” Zigman separates her true and fictional plots. She writes: “When I told my sister Linda that I was going to write a novel about two sisters who… finally came to terms with how their other sister’s death had shaped their family, and them, she said: I believe you. Could there be a better gift than that?”
Not for this reader. If a stubborn curmudgeon like Joyce could change her less wonderful traits, I thought, maybe I could too.
Meredith Maran is a journalist, critic, and author of “The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention,” among other books.
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