Not JD Salinger, Actually
Catcher In The Rye wasn't one of my favourite books. Maybe I was too young when I first read it, and too old when I read it again. Maybe I was never a rebel. For whatever reason, it wasn't the novel that pierced my heart and made me gasp, this book is all about ME!
For me, that book was The Millstone by Margaret Drabble. A slim volume about a twenty-something student in 1960s London who finds herself pregnant and decides to have the baby on her own, it may have been an odd choice for a 15 year old Australian girl who'd never even kissed a boy, let alone gone further. But Rosamund Stacey spoke to me in a voice that I recognised as if I'd known it through a hundred lifetimes. Despite all the superficial differences between us, I knew Rosamund; she was me.
Diffident, bookish, always tightly controlled, Rosamund would almost literally rather die than ask others for help or be a nuisance. One of the themes of the novel is how the arrival of her baby, Octavia, splits open the shell of determined solitary independence that has grown up around Rosamund. Babies have needs that cannot be denied; she has to ask for help now, she is forced to rely on other people, to beg for favours, to hand over control, for Octavia's sake.
At the very end of the book, Rosamund is briefly reunited with Octavia's father, another diffident solitary type (almost certainly gay), and recognises that whatever vague yearning she might have felt for him is dim and wavering indeed, compared with the radiant pearly all-consuming love she feels for her daughter. I was a long way off being a mother then, but the truth of that acknowledgement stayed with me. The Millstone told me that ultimately it's impossible to preserve your isolation from the rest of the human race; having a child is the quickest and most devastating way to learn that lesson. But all that didn't mean much to me at 15; I was focused on the way Rosamund was in the world, delighted and a little bit shocked with the recognition.
Rosamund Stacey's story was written just before I was born; I could have been baby Octavia myself. But Rosamund remains my very favourite literary heroine, because she helped me understand myself before I even really knew who I was.
Thank you, Margaret Drabble.