Wendell Steavenson is an American journalist, and the author of three nonfiction books dealing with political upheavals, in Iraq, Egypt, and Georgia. In 2018 she published a novel, Paris Metro, about an Anglo-American journalist in Paris forced to confront the threat of terrorism to her own family. Margot, her second novel, is set in a very different time and place from her earlier books, and far from her experiences covering conflicts in the Middle East for ten years.
Nonetheless, there are also explosions for Margot Thornsen, who spends the ’50s growing up sheltered between an apartment on Park Avenue and her family’s estate in Oyster Bay. A lab where the Radcliffe science major is at work will shatter; during the ’60s, she’s part of all manner of revolutions that break out; and she figures in many beautifully written pages of loud and funny conversations that involve her over the years. Steavenson unfolds this life in three parts she calls Beginning, Intermediate, and Advancing, layering them with observations and described experiences that make the novel at once a page-turner, a feminist guide, a science primer, and a vision of what forming the messy and rich life of community means.
Margot rebels against the assumptions about who and what she will be from an early age — that she will adhere to proper cultural protocols, marry well, make nice friends, and live a respectable life as a wife, Upper East Side hostess, and mother. But she can’t. She’s compelled to follow her curiosity beyond dancing school and debutante balls, and pursue a life of science. She is always following her gaze somewhere else, seeking knowledge the way she climbed trees as a child, past the mossy reaches, catkins, bird nests, towards the palmate canopy of tree leaves under the blue sky, decked out in a party dress and Mary Janes. Blown out of the branches and onto the lawn by a gust of wind, she’s badly bruised. And undeterred. Her mother is furious. Older, she’s exuberant as she ponders the question, “How does the nematode on the flea on the dog look up and understand the moon?”
Margot also becomes a love story. It looks at deep and honest friendships, and it offers a passionate portrayal of how the fierce and furious relationship between a mother and a daughter can turn violent. It is in the tradition of novels about untraditional women — whether Middlemarch, Little Women, Mrs. Dalloway, The Golden Notebook, or almost anything by Cathleen Schine. Warm and witty, it carries its intelligence lightly, and feels like a friend for life.
Margot, by Wendell Steavenson (W.W. Norton), is available online and in stores now.