I admit it. I stalked Jane Bernstein years ago after I read her book Departures, which I was obsessed with. And I tracked her down and wrote to her, and we became friends. Real life friends! She put me at her gorgeous home in Pittsburgh, we've visited here in NYC and if we followed each other's careers any closer, we'd be the same person.
I've loved all her books, and this new one THE FACE TELLS THE SECRET is one of her best. About how responsible we should be to the ones we love, about disability seen from a very different lens, and about love and place and family, it's page-turning and gorgeously written. And I'm not the only one to say so. Take a look here:
“Reverberating with vivid characters, tempestuous bonds, and poignant moments, The Face Tells the Secret is a contemporary page-turner as haunting as it is humane.”
Rachel Simon, New York Times bestselling author of Riding The Bus With My Sister and The Story of Beautiful Girl
“Jane Bernstein’s novel is a beautiful, almost balletic exploration of the role of repression across generations. This book asks many questions—about knowledge, forgiveness, disability, the slippery shapes of fear and love—but always through the lived life of its narrator. Her journey into the past and attempts to chart a future had me hooked.”
Elizabeth Graver, author of The End of the Point
“The characters in Jane Bernstein’s expansive and beautiful novel, “The Face Tells the Secret,” are exquisite, complex, real creations. From Pittsburgh to Tel Aviv, they bring us into their lives with depth and honesty. A wonderful book.”
Karen E. Bender, author of Refund, a finalist for the National Book Award
“Who should we care for?” asks Roxanne, the narrator of The Face Tells the Secret. “How much of our lives should we spend looking after others? When do we turn away to protect ourselves?” Jane Bernstein delivers no easy answers in this heartbreaking and, ultimately, heart-mending novel. Rather she explores the complications of human relations in many variations – between mother and child, siblings, man and woman, over long-distances, and in close quarters. This book is about love and life, and absolutely worth reading.
Suzanne Kamata, author of Losing Kei and Indigo Girl
Suzanne Kamata, author of Losing Kei and Indigo Girl
Jane writes fiction, memoir, essays, and screenplays, and in 2018, a picture book, cowritten with her daughter, Charlotte Glynn. Jane’s books include Bereft – A Sister’s Story, and two memoirs about raising a daughter with intellectual disabilities, Loving Rachel and Rachel in the World. Jane’s awards include a Fulbright Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in Creative Writing. She’s a professor of English and member of the Creative Writing Program at Carnegie Mellon University and lives in Pittsburgh, PA and New York City with Jeff, the man, and Rozzie, the dog, both of whom travel well.
Thanks so much for being here, Jane! Only thing better would be sitting across a table from you!
I always think writers are haunted into writing their novels. What was haunting you about this particular one?
This book is very much about ghosts and what it’s like to grow up with parents who cannot talk about the tragedies of the past but who are deeply wounded by these unseen disasters. Although the events in The Face Tells the Secret are not autobiographical, the themes are ones I can’t escape as a writer. Like my protagonist, Roxanne, I grew up in a house full of shadows. In my case, it was the death of my sister, when I was seventeen. After her murder, my parents did not – could not -- talk about her.
So much of this astonishing novel is about the ways we love—or don’t love, and how loss amplifies that. Could you talk about that please?
There are two kinds of “love” that Roxanne wrestles with. One has to do with caregiving and responsibility for one’s kin. How much should she give to the wounded people in her life? Then there’s romantic love. To paraphrase a question Roxanne asks herself late in the novel: how can you love when you have never been loved yourself? Roxanne is tender-hearted, but at the start of the novel has been unable to form a romantic relationship with an emotionally stable man. Her mother, who rarely touched her, rarely had a kind word, was too wounded to love her the way a baby and child should be loved. In the course of the book, she has to learn how to open herself to love and to trust that she can be loved in return.
You’ve written so many gorgeous books, from memoirs to novels. Do you feel that you are able to build on each previous novel, or is every work a new one?
Oh, I wish I could build on what I’ve written, but I seem unable to fully do that. I know more about craft than I did when I did as a beginning writer, but that knowledge doesn’t always help in creating a coherent work. Sometimes it even hinders. But as you say, we are haunted into writing our books, and so I bumble along.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m finishing a first draft set in in 1972, which begins with the disappearances of a charismatic middle-aged man. He’s left three women behind – his very young wife, Lindy, who’s the protagonist, his eccentric best friend, and a girl he picked up hitchhiking, who’s pregnant with his child. For a year, the three live together in Maine. Although I know it’s a tough story to write at this particular period of time, I’m trying to write a nuanced portrait of a charming, immoral, kind of awful man, who also, in major ways transformed the course of my protagonist’s life. The story is framed by Lindy at the present time. (And I loved Cruel, Beautiful World, which is this book’s beautiful stepsister…)
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Who am I reading? Apart from Caroline Leavitt? I loved The Friend, The Body in Question, The Mars Room. I’ve been teaching lit courses of late and read widely all summer long for whatever theme I choose. This year it was “Brooklyn.” My students – men, women, of all ethnicities, mostly computer science or tech majors, all fell in love with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I can’t tell you how surprised and delighted I was. They are hungry for great stories.