Briar-Rose Redux: New Novella at Anderbo

by Posted on February 5th, 2009 at 11:01 am

Anderbo, one of Esquire blog’s five best literary magazine websites, has published its first novella, “We Were There and Now We’re Here” by Kayla Soyer-Stein. It begins with an epigraph from Gunter Kunert’s postmodern “Sleeping Beauty.” In Grimm’s classic tale, the whole castle falls asleep along with the princess after she pricks her finger on a spindle and is cursed for a hundred years sleep; the servants, the farm animals, as well as the Queen and King. A hedge grows up around the castle, preventing anyone from entering it. When a hundred years pass, a prince arrives and the briar-rose parts, revealing the castle and its sleeping inhabitants in medias res. He kisses the princess and the curse is broken.

Kunert’s tale is a prayer for those who died in the hedge, dreaming of Sleeping Beauty as she once was. Because a hundred years have passed, and of course Sleeping Beauty is no longer beautiful or young. She’s old and wrinkled, and no longer desirable to the prince who finds her.

“We Were There and Now We’re Here” reverses the role of prince and princess with the May-December romance between forty-one year old Camilla and her seventy-three year old former high-school teacher, Mr. Avery. This fine-tuned and delicate novella posits the hazards of happy endings and of story-telling, with its narrator, Susan Morris. She recounts her friendship with Camilla in the late-fifties Manhattan, where they both attended an all-girls school on the Upper East Side, and where Mr. Avery was their teacher. In the empire of girlhood, Camilla’s infatuation with Mr. Avery is also a mandate, and their attempts to gain his favor a ruse to survey one another and perhaps deflect from lesbian desire. For Susan, her longing for Mr. Avery is decidedly chaste:

If anyone were to suggest to me, at this time, that my love was only an imitation of her love, that I had been brainwashed into it, I would have been outraged. I thought about Mr. Avery constantly… I would imagine running into him outside of school and having him be impressed with whatever I was doing—he wouldn’t say anything that would embarrass me, of course, but I would see it in his eyes. Later he might mention me to his wife: “I saw one of my favorite students at the Met today,” he might say. “Susan Morris. She was so enthralled by one of the Gauguin paintings that she didn’t even notice me at first. I had to say her name twice. Have you ever met a fifteen-year-old girl who cared so much about art?

In the realm of myth, there are usually three important tasks that a heroine or hero must complete, and in “We Were There” they are not tasks per se but incidents that change the course of their friendship: In the first, Camilla and Susan overhear a conversation about Mr. Avery’s possible lecherous behavior toward the girls. In the second (chronologically the first), Mr. Avery asks Susan to submit a piece to their literary journal. And in the final and fateful third, Mr. Avery offers Susan a ride home one rainy day after school. Kayla Soyer-Stein recreates the wonderful magic and sense of the uncanny that fairy tales offer, even as she warns us not to believe everything we hear.