Let’s take it as a given that I’m going to be hard on anyone who tries to write an adult novel imitating the plot of my favorite children’s book, Harriet the Spy. It’s like someone coming along and trying to “update” the recipe for my favorite comfort food. (No, I don’t want bacon or truffles or anything else in my macaroni and cheese, thank you.) So I’m holding Kerry Clare to an almost impossibly high standard for her novel Mitzi Bytes, and it’s no wonder she falls short.
“Mitzi Bytes” is a name made up by Clare’s protagonist, Sarah, wife of a computer programmer and mother to two little girls, one in kindergarten and the other in second grade. Sarah has been writing her blog under this pseudonym for fifteen years and has achieved some success, with a couple of books developed from her blog writing and ad revenue from her site. The blog began as an online journal-type dating tell-all site and morphed into a mommy blog. As the novel begins, someone has connected Sarah with her online persona and is threatening to expose her.
If you know Harriet the Spy, you can see that Clare has set up some interesting observations about a woman’s public identity in the age of online journaling, a worthy successor to Louise Fitzhugh’s exploration of the role of honesty in the formation of a child’s identity. And yet Fitzhugh manages universality in a way that Clare does not.
It’s not for lack of trying. The parts of Clare’s book I like best are about motherhood and identity, especially how the former can erase some of the latter. For example, when Sarah’s husband asks her if there’s “anything I need to know?” on a day she’s upset, she knows that “what he was asking her was if tonight was the night he had to leave work on time because she had her book club, if she wanted any groceries picked up on his way home, and if there was something else she needed him to remember. These were practical things. He was certainly not inquiring as to the status of the depths of her soul, the reason for her fear and dread, about her strange mood this morning. He didn’t want to know any of that.”
Sarah thinks that her relationship with her readers online is that “we’re all just figments of one another’s imaginations.” I don’t agree with this, but then I’ve never gone by a pseudonym or shied away from consummating my online relationships by meeting in real life. There is a section in which Sarah talks to younger people about a “a blog….Like Tumblr….blogs were for old people.” The young people—her students—tell her that “online you can be who you really are.” When Sarah says “I wonder about the consequences, though…of these divided selves. If we don’t all get a little scrambled by the whole thing,” one of the students points out that “it’s like I have a hundred parts of me anyway, never mind on the Internet.”
When the friend who has told everyone Sarah’s online name finally confronts her in person, she asks “what is the point of what you’re doing?” and Sarah thinks “she’d asked herself the same question many times, and she’d never been able to come to a satisfying answer. And whenever she got close, it was always different from what she’d answered before. Her blog was a record, a place where she worked out what she thought of things, where she reflected on the world around her, which was not the same as being a reflection of it.” The friend doesn’t like the way her life is reflected by the mirror Sarah holds up to it. In fact, as other people confront Sarah, we see that they believe she has written about them, when in fact she has not–they’re applying what she’s said about someone else to themselves.
Sarah, as Mitzi, finally articulates something important about why her writing is important to her: “It’s a virtue, I think, having an open mind. It’s not waffling or flip-flopping, but instead it’s the gift of perspective, which is a far more complicated gift than obliviousness is.” And for Sarah, as for many other writers throughout history, writing is a way of defining her perspective. (Rohan–who alerted me to the existence of this novel—has more thoughts about identity in her review.)
What’s sad about the end of Sarah’s story is that she is content to let her husband validate her identity when he says “I need you….you’re everything. This whole life—you’re the centre. You made it for me, the kind of life I never could have imagined for myself. And without you, none of it means anything.” How lovely, I thought. He’s not going to be saying that any more when their little girls have graduated from college and left home. Then Sarah is either going to have to move into the center of something else, or she’s going to become one of those fussy former home-makers who bustle around the house with a set of holiday decorations for almost every month, demanding that the adult children come home for Easter, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July (in African-American families, maybe it’s Juneteenth; in British or Canadian families, perhaps spring bank holiday and Orangeman’s Day).
At the end of the novel, Sarah becomes a journalist (like blogging, sadly, a dying endeavor).
The part of this novel that I like least is Clare’s strange idea of homage, naming Sarah’s two friends Janie (a chemist) and Beth-Ellen, who “tended to be underestimated.” There’s also a throw-away line about how her husband’s sister calls him “Sport” and an overly-contrived scene of Sarah hiding in a dumbwaiter. Like I said, though, mine is an impossibly high standard. It’s not a bad novel; it’s just that it’s not a masterpiece.