Whether to live within the limits of our most fragile selves? Whether the safe harbor or the open ocean? A suffering mind or the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?
These are core questions, urgent questions, in life and in literature. They were central for Hamlet and for Bilbo Baggins, and they remain so in the world around us – for astronauts, for Shark Tank contestants and for commercial fishermen. The questions are also central for Daphne, the protagonist in this insightful and completely lovely novel.
Daphne is chronically ill with cataplexy, a paralysis that will seize her for days if she’s touched by emotion any deeper than the waxy buildup on the floor in her mother’s Indiana kitchen. In her youth, Daphne once fell down paralyzed, then was ruled dead and put into cold storage to await an autopsy. When the reader joins her as a young adult, her world has become a series of stratagems designed to outwit her condition, a ducking and weaving that permits a self-aware Midwesterner to survive an eventful life in San Francisco where she manages an animal research facility. Life means not getting too attached – not too attached to the whimpering puppies trembling in cages at her lab, not too attached to her struggling employees, not to the homeless beggars with stubs where arms and legs used to be, and only conditionally to the well-meaning eccentric who wants to be her boyfriend. Attachments bring spontaneous joy or bitter disappointment, either of which would shove her face first to the sidewalk, then waking in the ER without her front teeth.
Daphne’s story might leave an empathetic reader exhausted and perhaps quiet with gratitude that her life’s limits are far less severe.
Daphne’s first-person narrative, in Will Boast’s crisp prose, puts the reader behind the eyes of a protagonist who is defined by an imagination with a mean streak. Daphne’s spirit is often desperate for calm and sometimes desperate about being desperate, the result of her consuming need to balance self-preservation against the turbulence of ordinary life. She routinely denies herself life’s pleasures. She repeats placid mantras. She tranquilizes herself with wine.
She once seemed certain to turn inward and sour. In her childhood, “every sigh and groan in [her house], every draft and whimper, every scuff on the linoleum and worn-down wale on the corduroy couch … seemed eternal.” As a young adult, she is outwardly stoic. She feels brittle, yields to anything glittering or intimidating, and yet remains durably engaging. In her own way, she is succeeding.
The author invested considerable effort to create an appealing protagonist and he succeeded. Daphne is easy to admire for all that she has overcome. When she’s feeling overwhelmed and locks herself in her apartment, you are happy to be her companion, pleased that she’d confide in you.
Daphne’s condition is never named, only described. It is ragged at the edges, a dangerous variable, the x in a badass equation. It’s anxiety and depression in the extreme; it’s a whole life on a board set on a pointy fulcrum, hovering over venomous snakes slithering on quicksand. With his creation, Mr. Boast seems to have ignored the cliché write what you know, and instead gone with figure it out as you go along. It’s a ringing endorsement for wandering away from comfort zones, foregoing the comfortable and the familiar, daring not to worry. This book has the righteous feel of a writer and a protagonist who want to give a middle finger to their insecurities.
Mr. Boast knifes through early and meaningful back story with clipped descriptions that slice and sting as Daphne’s narrative moves forward. He lingers over the impact of her condition and presses hard enough to leave bruises and a tired vulnerability. Then he approaches like a prizefighter without gloves. Here comes Daphne’s dear friend and her poor life choices. Here come the members of the Animal Liberation Front with bolt cutters. Here come Daphne’s needy coworkers, people who enjoy wild swings of mood, who so often have “crested and troughed, thrilled and wallowed and came out strangely purified.”
“If only we could all stay a mystery to one another,” Daphne laments.
The writing is simple and not overdecorated. It contains passages that glow like burning coal. It’s the kind of earnest prose that will make you forget someone labored for months over a manuscript and leave you enchanted by characters, by plot and by humanity’s resilience.
The Daphne of Greek mythology was a beautiful nymph burdened by the affections of the revered Apollo, the god of poetry, art, music, light and knowledge. She ran from him, evaded him, hated him, felt powerless against him. (Apollo, have you met Harvey Weinstein?) Apollo was forceful, his pursuit resolute and he left mythological Daphne drained and limp. She pleaded to become a laurel tree, a perpetual virgin, and her wish was granted. She gave away personhood to escape the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
But our Daphne lives in the 21st Century. Notions of gender equity have changed since Apollo’s day. Appropriately, Daphne’s final choices are modern — and so gratifying.