02 August 2009

Identifying with "Main Street"

WARNING: Possible spoilers for an 89-year-old book :-). My spoiler-free review is here.

This week, I read "Main Street" by Sinclair Lewis. I picked it because I've been in a retro mood lately so I thought that a book published in 1920 would fit the bill. Surprisingly, I found myself identifying with the main character a lot.

Brief plot summary: A 23-year-old librarian from Minneapolis, Carol, marries a country doctor and moves to his small town of Gopher Prairie. She has the idea that she is going to reform the town and bring the people up to speed with the city, but she meets opposition at every turn.

One of the things that Lewis does well in this novel is make the reader understand Carol's feeling of isolation and boredom. There were periods when she was determined to be happy with her life and she would throw herself into tasks like housework and child rearing with gusto, only to be bored again after a few months. When I read certain passages, I was catapulted back to my teen years living out in the country. We lived in a house on the hill and it took 30 minutes of driving in either direction to get to anything. There was no cable TV or internet in our area back then, and Nintendo and home computers didn't hit our area until after I graduated high school. My parents weren't book buyers and library trips were once a month or less. I spent a good bit of my junior high and high school years fantasizing about moving to New York (where I lived until I was 10) or some other big city.

My marriage also has some parallels with Carol and Will's union. When ABM and I first moved in together, we lived in the same city that he had grown up in. His family and all of his friends from high school still lived in the area. At that time ABM had not ventured far from his hometown and had not tried many new things. I was shocked when I found out that he had never tasted Chinese food! His attitude in our early years was, "If my friends and I have never heard of it, then it isn't done." I stuck out like a sore thumb among his friends and relatives because I had been exposed to different ideas so I did things differently than everyone he knew. Just like Will in the book, ABM loved me but once he got me he wanted me to conform so that I wouldn't embarrass him. Thankfully, ABM has also followed Will in mellowing over the years and accepting that I'm going to be who I am, no matter what.

As it stands now, I think I've reached the same ending that Carol did in the book. After separating from Will and living in Washington DC for two years, Carol decided to go back to him. Her time spent away helped her realize that it is possible to be bored and unfulfilled whether you are in the city or the country. She developed a thicker skin so that the comments of her neighbors no longer bothered her. She went to work improving what she could in Gopher Prairie and not being bothered by the rest. That's where I am now. I've learned to meet people where they are and talk about what they are interested in. I can be who I am without insisting that everyone else be like me or being hurt that they think I'm odd.
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