ALL WE KNOW: Three Lives
By Lisa Cohen
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 429 pp., $30
Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland are relatively obscure names now, but according to author Lisa Cohen, each is worth attention and reconsideration; they were, she writes, “three lives in which what it meant to be modern was an urgent question.” All three were born in the 1890s; all were lesbian — though Murphy and Garland both married men — and part of the social world Cohen calls “sapphic New York and Paris” that also included Janet Flanner, Katharine Cornell, and the eminent power couple Stein and Toklas.
Looking at the three in conjunction, Cohen argues, we can see a kind of map of female genius and its myriad enemies, as well as “a storehouse of modern anxieties about what we call failure, irrationality, and triviality.” Throughout this brilliant and gorgeously written book runs an undercurrent of deep sympathy and an acute eye for revealing details.
Remembered today merely as “a marvel who became a spectacular disappointment,” Esther Murphy talked dazzlingly and wrote sparingly; despite winning contracts to publish biographies of historical women, she never finished one. Madge Garland built a successful career — as an editor at British Vogue between the wars, she forged ties with the Bloomsbury Group, publishing essays and fiction by Virginia Woolf and others — but Cohen argues that fashion’s status as a minor, feminine art form kept Garland from achieving the reputation she deserved.
De Acosta’s story occupies a brief interlude between the two longer sections on Murphy and Garland, but her life, too, provides Cohen rich material for this tour de force examination of the intersecting roles of gender, sexuality, class, literature, art, fashion, and modernism.
THE PAINTED BRIDGE
By Wendy Wallace
Scribner, 291 pp., $25
When Anna Palmer, a young bride, arrives at Lake House with her husband, Vincent, a minister some 20 years her senior, she thinks they’re visiting friends. It’s only after Vincent abruptly leaves that Anna realizes she’s been committed to a mental institution against her will. Set in 1859 outside London, “The Painted Bridge” chronicles Anna’s incarceration at Lake House, an institution housing women diagnosed with hysteria, epilepsy, “[h]abits of intemperance,” or, really, any excuse to shut them away. Anna forges tentative connections with her fellow patients and her attendant, the evocatively named Martha Lovely, who explains that patients are less cured than released or held depending on “what happens outside. Who wants them out. Who wants them in.” And she piques the interest of Lucas St. Clair, a doctor who believes that through photography he can begin to understand and perhaps alleviate all the varieties of female madness.
Wendy Wallace’s first novel blends melodrama, social satire, and lyrical passages about Anna’s childhood and her enduring connection to the sea and sailors. Some of the male characters are as broad and flat as cartoons, especially Vincent, a pompous, self-regarding nonentity. The book comes alive in the harrowing description of Anna’s treatment — torture wouldn’t be too strong a word — and in its sensitive portraits of Lake House’s women, all of them stunted by powerlessness, driven mad less by their minds than by the world.
WHY DOES THE WORLD EXIST?: An Existential Detective Story
By Jim Holt
Liveright, 309 pp., $27.95
It’s the mystery William James called “the darkest in all philosophy”: “[W]hy is there something rather than nothing?” For Jim Holt, it is a question that may never find an answer, but one endlessly worth asking. In this highly engaging book, Holt visits great thinkers in mathematics, quantum physics, artificial intelligence, theology, philosophy, and literature. These conversations don’t lead him toward any conclusion, but they make for a lively, thoughtful read, whether your worldview tends toward Spinoza (in which “reality is a self-sustaining causal loop: the world creates us, and we in turn create the world”) or like Stephen Hawking, still searching for the final theory of everything.
Holt is a generous guide, laying out a brief history of how philosophers have approached these questions before bringing us along on his tour of modern thinkers — some of whom are also fairly eccentric, hilarious talkers. The author’s willingness to include his personal struggles with being and nothingness — as when he faces the death first of his dog, then of his mother — grounds the book in intimate, humane terms. We may never know why the universe exists, but we know how to grieve those who exit it.