What Came Before by Gay Degani was written by a woman who, admittedly, got “lost in living.” Like so many people, and I suppose I mean particularly women, Degani felt writing took up too much of her time, time that “should” be spent—and would be better spent—raising a family, i.e. taking care of others and their needs.
“I was too busy living and too afraid to give up ‘real life’ for something I felt was basically selfish.”
An extended aside:
Of course, the example of J. K. Rowling hovering over our heads—up before dawn to write, all while raising two kids and on the dole—puts Degani’s (and my and many others) inability to write and finish our books in a timely manner to shame, fanning the flame of self-criticism. But Rowling is the exception rather than the rule. I know many people, myself included as well as a dear friend (who is male), who have difficulty living in two worlds—’real life’ with its responsibilities versus creating one’s art. Not understanding this potential conflict ahead of time, ahead of vows and births, we plunge into marriage and children with visions of fairy tales dancing in our heads. It’s rather shocking when reality slowly, insidiously creeps in and we are up to our armpits—only our arms able to flail, our mouths able to voice our alarm—before “seeing” the surprising truth: marriage, family, and a career or employment eat up the lion’s share of the day. How can that be? How can this new world, which we chose, consume so much time that one’s creative need must be cast aside?
My attempts to carve out a space for my fiction writing came in the form of an alarm ringing obnoxiously at 4:30 a.m. This would give me an hour and a half to devote to my creative love before waking my wee one and beginning our day. The snooze button would be pushed, but hopefully only once, then I was rising to splash cold water on my face, make coffee, set up my corner of the dining room table that faced East, and open the window to a lightening sky. Finally, I would sit down to write while the world still slept. It was luscious and productive. It also added to my exhaustion—I was divorced, working 6-day weeks as I started a photography/headshot business, and trying to remain solvent (no child support those first few years). Between drop off and pick up from daycare/pre-school/elementary school, grocery shopping, laundry, cleaning, cooking, and bathing, while also reading, soothing, comforting, playing, and being with my child—I found I was hitting my emotional, mental, and physical limit, hitting a brick wall, every single day. And though writing fiction helped keep me sane, this pure act of creating, which was a caring gesture to address my needs and wants, very often did not fit into my 24-hour day. Days of not writing slid quickly into weeks and months. Only after a time, when I began to feel restless, antsy, slightly anxious and untethered, did I try once more to write. I never managed to settle into a groove or establish a routine because the first thing that fell off my list if I was running out of hours in the day was my writing, even though writing usually settled my feet back onto firm ground. But this inconsistency—and the failure I felt from being inconsistent—is much of the reason why my novel took ten years to finish.
Degani’s What Came Before took a dozen years to complete, she admits, and I’m glad that she persevered. Her story of mothers and daughters, emotional bonds and familial ties, as well as societal norms and historical prejudice—all set within a murder/mystery plot—is an absorbing, compelling read.
Degani has created a situation a reader will never suspect is coming, and I found that intriguing. Because of it, the author is able to delve into—for good and bad—1950s Hollywood, the entertainment industry, and society as a whole. Being a lover of history, I enjoyed this angle and learned several things of which I was ignorant.
The murder/mystery element seems almost secondary to the protagonist Abbie Palmer’s personal journey, until the last few chapters where the style of the genre finally makes its presence felt. So much of her story reads true to life that when weapons are drawn finally, it’s almost comedic and jarring—ah yes, woman in peril time. I wasn’t reading What Came Before as a classic murder/mystery novel and the culminating reveal caught me off guard.
From a critical view, I would have employed some editing, eliminating repetitive language, encouraging the disclosure of what lay at the core of a repeating motif, altering one off-note at the ending, and a re-working of some dialogue in an effort to be more thoroughly authentic. That being said, What Came Before is a solid, worthy first novel. I was thoroughly engaged in Abbie and her history of a famous, tragic mother and neglectful father; her current crisis of marriage and needing to find “a room of one’s own” to create her art; and her falling into a situation, realities, and worlds of which she’s completely unfamiliar. There’s a lot going on, but Degani has control of the reins.
In the author’s note at the end of the book, Degani qualifies her book as not serious literature, though she hopes readers find it entertaining and “somewhat thought-provoking.”
We did read What Came Before in a handful of hours, in a single sitting, and we can confirm that it has substantial entertainment value. Additionally, it has depth with layers to be contemplated. A story that explores a character’s need to create art yet find balance with ‘real life,’ with which many of us can identify, then includes abrupt confrontations that illustrate past societal shortcomings, which have lead to, in the present, formidable consequences, is a book on which we could ruminate and which we savored.
Photo, top right: Bobbeecher at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.