A little magic goes a long way. • Connie May Fowler's new novel How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly is the story of a single scorching day — the summer solstice of 2006, to be exact — on which the title character tries to come to grips with her miserable marriage and her writer's block with the help of a passel of ghosts, a dwarf circus, a probationary angel and her own inner superhero. • At 35, Clarissa is seven years into her marriage to Iggy Dupuy, and "itch" doesn't begin to describe the problems in the relationship. They're living in a tiny Florida Panhandle town called Hope (although Clarissa is losing it), making each other crazy — and not in a good way.
A photographer and painter from South Africa, Iggy is 16 years older than his wife. He not only prefers to work with nude models (young, lovely, female ones) but likes to photograph them in Clarissa's beloved rose garden, where on solstice morning he's posing two of them right in her line of sight when she looks out the kitchen window (and arranging a long "lunch" with them later).
Despite his arduous hours with the models, Iggy's art doesn't make money. Clarissa's writing bought the house, pays the bills and funds not only Iggy's art projects but his purchases of military paraphernalia, French porn, rare single-malt Scotch and "long-distance phone calls to someone in Europe whose name and gender he refused to reveal."
Besides being a mooch and a philanderer, Iggy is just plain mean, routinely calling Clarissa "stupid" and worse to her face, disdaining her work and her desire for children. He hasn't shown any interest in having sex (with her) in almost two years. And he won't even drive the four months' worth of household trash piled up in the bed of their pickup truck to the dump.
So Iggy's a jerk, but Clarissa has her own problems. For a woman of her generation, she's a frustratingly passive character, cooking and cleaning and making nary a peep about Iggy's behavior. She doesn't have any illusions about her husband; indeed, she detests him: "Not only did she want Iggy dead, she spent at least 90 percent of her waking hours and a good portion of her dreamtime fantasizing about said death."
Those death fantasies, in fact, are a major factor in her inability to settle down and write the novel her agent is clamoring for — while she's trying to focus on "a mental list of funny, smart, despicable and fascinating characters," all she can picture is Iggy being dismembered by his riding mower. But despite that rage, or maybe because of it, she seems unable to walk away, or do much of anything else of her own volition. Even in her fatal fantasies, Iggy's death is accidental; she's just a luckily situated witness.
Although Clarissa thinks a lot about female empowerment, she seems not to have female friends. (Maybe one reason for her emotional paralysis is the lack of even one girlfriend to call up and complain to about Iggy; any pal worth her margarita salt would tell Clarissa to kick the guy out and be done with it.)
She makes up for that somewhat with all the women living inside her head, who include a superhero version of herself with golden skin and blue boots, her inner Buddha, her inner child (the victim of an abusive mother, a self she still "could not love"), a chatty drag-queen version of Deepak Chopra in sparkly red-framed glasses and her "ovarian shadow women . . . the exuberant chorus of voices that swirled up from, she supposed, the depths of her unconscious and did their best to alternately ease her rising anxieties and inflame them beyond all reason."
But none of them seem to be getting her off the dime. It takes the intervention of ghosts to snap Clarissa out of her fog, particularly the family who built her handsome house almost two centuries before and haunt it still. The tragic story of Olga Villada, her husband, Amaziah Archer, and their little son, Heart, is one of the most compelling parts of the book, and works well as a counterpoint to Clarissa's loveless marriage.
But Fowler, who grew up in Tampa and graduated from the University of Tampa, doesn't stop with one batch of ghosts. She has used whimsy and magical realism before to good effect in novels like Before Women Had Wings and River of Dreams, but they are scattered through this book like a deck of Tarot cards and sometimes seem sketchy and disconnected: The remote cemetery filled with the ghosts of teenage girls and their babies feels like a sadly untold story, those talky ovarian shadow women don't contribute much, and the dwarf circus with the convenient human cannonball might as well have "Cirque du Deus ex Machina" painted on its trucks. As for the housefly that falls in love with Clarissa, dies at her hands and comes back as a ghost — I wanted to give it another swat.
Some of the book's most effective scenes pass on magical elements altogether, notably Clarissa's starlit sojourn with a writer friend, a younger man whose genuine regard for her helps to finally steel her for a confrontation. After too many flight delays, she does indeed learn, in a most unlikely way, to fly.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.