Kate Bernheimer’s The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold—the last novel in her trilogy about three sisters—makes for an unusually happy ending. Lucy, the most cheerful of the Golds, steps forward to recount her life and untimely death. Her novel, like the others in the trilogy, draws upon traditions of the fairy tale. “Dearest robins, my precious friends!” Lucy exclaims while recalling a time she lived in the woods. “Did you ever love something so much you just wanted to eat it?” Her joy is so strong that it shatters and erases. In the breaks and blanks it leaves behind comes a sense of Lucy’s isolation.
Silence also slips through the cracks of this innovative, haunting novel. Like the other Complete Tales—the first one is about the saddest sister, Ketzia, the second about the meanest, Merry—short chapters form a fragmented yet cohesive narrative. At the center of this novel lies a mystery about what Lucy cannot say. Unlike her sisters whose turbulent emotions lead downward into profound conflict, Lucy doesn’t notice deeper aspects of existence, a fact she freely admits. While working as an animation artist for the movies, she is “considered airy fairy.” “I was . . . thought to live on the shiny surface of things. This is not an incorrect judgment of me.”
The surface of Lucy Gold sparkles with exclamation points. “Oh, our dear and resourceful Lucy!” cries the narrator in one of the many chapters rendered in the third person. Next to such bright lines, Bernheimer sets bold statements about loss. “Once upon a time,” says Lucy only a page after her resourcefulness is lauded, “a dark force took my spirit away and replaced it with nothing.” This “dark force” is about as well-defined as evil gets for Lucy. Her optimism is so extreme that she struggles to see any event that resists happy interpretation.
One such event is her own death. By page ten, we find out she is no longer alive. Just how she died, though, is not entirely clear to the reader or, it seems, to Lucy herself. She takes confused turns in her narration when confronting the end of her life. Cause and effect get switched, for instance, when she describes how her death followed a visit to her forest home from Ketzia. “After that, my job did not provide me with much satisfaction,” she says. “And so? I died, and then I quit.”
What exactly happened with Ketzia to provoke such despondency? This question has no answer within the novel, although the other books in the trilogy suggest possibilities. The completeness of The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold as a novel on its own hinges on an acceptance of ambiguities and excised statements. Lucy’s account of Ketzia’s visit, for example, gives rise to a long fill-in-the-blank. “I’m terribly sorry,” Lucy remarks to the reader, “but I can’t tell you what she said. You’ll just have to imagine it here:_____________________________.”
Such evasions would be coy if Bernheimer didn’t so diligently show the consequences of Lucy’s actions. The ethereal, confused woman speaking about her life and death always sounds exactly like who she is: someone who has avoided brutal truths for years. Part of what makes this novel such an unusually beautiful gem is how Bernheimer exposes the ugly facets of relentless good cheer. Lucy’s optimism is frequently inappropriate. Furthermore, her habit of focusing on the “shiny surface of things” can be self-serving, especially at work. As she explains: “in the larger and more competitive world, my superficial appearance did serve me well.”
While mesmerizing on its own, Lucy Gold gains potency when viewed within the context of the trilogy as a whole. Lucy’s positive attitude looks like a practical necessity in light of her sisters’ fates. In The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, the heroine’s sadness ultimately drives her to take “pink pills,” which she describes as “the size of hummingbird eggs,” to sleep. Merry is similarly ravaged by inner turbulence. “I’ve wasted so much of my life,” she says while recounting how she wandered through town in search of vodka with a stranger. “I hate myself.” The stranger beats her while ranting about how the olives that Merry wants will turn their vodka “tart.” Next to such dangerous tales of rage and despair, Lucy’s optimism seems like an attempt at basic survival.
While her cheerfulness sets her apart, Lucy’s novel squarely belongs with those of her sisters. The affinity has much to do with Bernheimer’s unique aesthetic. In all three Gold novels, the simple language and odd logic of the fairy tale come together with the occasional drawing or amateur snapshot. Also included are photos of common domestic objects, such as crafts and dolls. While these visual and verbal elements emphasize the familiar—the once-upon-a-times are as well-worn as the dolls with their blink-less gazes—their juxtapositions can startle. Oftentimes they rest on associations that are disturbingly close yet off-kilter. A photo of two crocheted acorns, for instance, comes at the end of a chapter about Lucy quitting her job with the film studio’s “Verisimilitude” department and moving into the woods with “the acorns and lichen.” The crocheted nuts have sewn-on smiles as seemingly permanent as Lucy’s.
Some of the juxtapositions can evoke raw emotion, but the surface of the prose always stays polished. Bernheimer is a wonderful stylist of deceptive skill. The power of her writing comes not from pyrotechnics but from polished lines that gently wake the reader to the unexpected. In Ketzia’s Complete Tales, one chapter begins in a simple, light style that echoes the language of a fairy tale. Soon, though, the narrative turns purely surreal. Four “depressed girls” appear as parts of a fragmented Ketzia:
The bespectacled one led us all on. Squinting ahead, she saw what she saw and stopped in her tracks. She couldn’t believe her lazy eyes: a neon-lit bar, so crowded it was deserted. She went up to the bartender and, lifting her patch, said, “Please, four one-dollar beers.” He answered, “It’s three dollars a margarita,” and gave them martinis with twists.
The girls reflect the whole Ketzia, who, at this point in the novel, is at the drunken end of a bad marriage. She and her husband drink “all the time, at all hours.” The reader can see nothing but divorce ahead, but Bernheimer startles at the chapter’s end with a photo that evokes beginnings. The photo is of a little girl dressed as a bride, her face thickly made-up. It’s hard not to assume that the picture is of Ketzia, even though the child is not identified. The photo makes Ketzia’s plight as a wife look generic and unavoidable. She seems to have practiced her part as the sad bride since childhood.
Some of the associations that Bernheimer makes in the trilogy—the childhood causes linked to adult effects—are both hideously bold and slightly vague, like a girl’s made-up face gleaned through a veil. Details from youth return in adult tales while moving in between the three books. A toy monkey that appears in Lucy Gold, for instance, also shows up in Ketzia’s novel obscurely. In Lucy’s Tales, the stuffed monkey is “under the bed” in a “worn cardboard shoebox.” The toy, which all three sisters play with as girls, comes to life in Ketzia’s novel when her mother calls her a “[g]ood little one-year-old monkey” while spinning her “around pretty hard.” Once married, Ketzia learns to “dance like a monkey, to dance like [she is] on a table but a monkey, not a girl.” Her husband, who wants her “to be more wild,” enjoys the dance. Ketzia’s effort, though, seems more domestic than wild when one thinks of the toy monkey that winds up in a box beneath a bed.
The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold with its complex connections supplies the right ending for this fascinating trilogy. Sometimes Lucy’s death seems more like a generative metaphor than a fatal conclusion. It inspires Lucy to keep turning back, to look at her lost life once more. It is possible that her death is purely symbolic and not literal. For those who have read the other Gold novels, this possibility may hold particular sway. Lucy’s Complete Tales is less gritty than those of her sisters, giving it the softer feeling of fantasy. This softness is undercut by a deep chill. The fantasy here has its roots in the cold dirt of Lucy’s psychological need and not in the clean conventions of genre.
For those who have not read the other Gold books, it makes sense to begin with this one. Its happily-ever-after is haunting both in its happiness and in what comes after its last page. The book inspires one to turn back, like Lucy, and see what came before.