Cover image for The Margaret-ghost
The Margaret-ghost
Novak, Barbara.
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Publication Information:
New York : George Braziller, 2003.
Physical Description:
190 pages ; 22 cm
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This fascinating novel by Barbara Novak blends painstaking scholarship and compelling fiction writing as it follows the lives of two women, one the subject of the other's research. Tenure-track professor Angelica Bookbinder is researching a book on the woman Henry James called "the Margaret-Ghost": the brilliant, New England feminist Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), who was a friend and contemporary to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Horace Greeley, among other nineteenth-century notable figures. Fascinated by Fuller's personal life as much as by her brilliance, Angelica focuses her research on the role that love played in Fuller's life, examining both her heterosexual and homosexual liaisons, while trying to understand her lifelong struggle to balance her intellectual strengths with her emotional needs. Driven by the belief that Fuller's life was dominated by a frustrated quest for love, Angelica passionately pursues her research, all the while aware that in doing so, she is straying from the academic straight and narrow. At the same time, Angelica finds her own romantic dilemmas beginning to echo Fuller's. Moving between nineteenth- and twentieth-century Boston, Angelica follows her research with an almost carnal obsession, bouncing between the advances of a female colleague and a burgeoning relationship with a fellow tenure-track professor. Her new lover, a Harvard scholar studying Herman Melville, appreciates Angelica's intellect--when it does not challenge his--but seems to prefer the body of someone Angelica contemptuously calls "the Baywatch girl." Juxtaposing nineteenth-century high culture and contemporary pop references with often-hilarious results, Novak probes thenature of male-female relationships, questioning if certain patterns transcend time. Satirical, erudite, and beautifully written, The Margaret-Ghost investigates relationships, academia, love, and research, creating a captiv

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The sly narrator in esteemed art historian Novak's delectable second novel must complete her book on Margaret Fuller to secure tenure at a Boston college, but she feels that the erudite, eloquent, and radical social critic and feminist, peer of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Horace Greeley, evades ordinary biography, and so instead of dutifully analyzing Margaret's writings, Angelica ponders the writer's horoscope and phrenologist's report and compiles evidence of just how threatened men were by Margaret's spectacular intellect. Seeking understanding of Margaret's bisexuality, abject groveling to an unworthy man, and surprising involvement with a penniless, nearly illiterate Roman marquis, Angelica conducts some rather risky field research with a lesbian women's studies professor and a competitive male colleague writing a book about Melville, another sexually complex genius. So cleverly constructed and precision aimed is this puzzle-fun novel, so droll and understated are Angelica's hilarious observations about men and women, so genuinely moving are her reflections on Margaret's brilliant mind and tragic life, the reader becomes enamored of both women, the real and the imagined, and appreciates anew the conundrums of love. --Donna Seaman Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Art historian and novelist Novak (Alice's Neck) links a modern-day professor and the 19th-century subject of her research in this slim, scholarly novel. Seeking tenure at a small Boston college, Angelica Bookbinder delves into the life of the great feminist intellectual Margaret Fuller, who was dubbed by Henry James "the Margaret-ghost" and who intimidated even Emerson. But instead of focusing on Fuller's scholarly achievements, the increasingly obsessed Angelica decides to write about Margaret's theories and practices of love, thus putting herself "on the verge of academic suicide." In order to understand Margaret's lesbian liaisons, Angelica attempts one herself with a female professor; to comprehend Margaret's strained relationship with a man, Angelica begins her own with a Melville scholar she meets in the library. Though they enjoy what Angelica prissily calls "physical rapport," he turns his attention from Angelica to a Baywatch beauty. For the reader, the fictional Angelica takes a backseat to the more compelling factual Margaret. Novak's great fondness for and knowledge of her historical subject is palpable; perhaps a straight biography would have sufficed? Erudite and thorough in her research, Novak sometimes lacks comparable elegance in her prose (she has, for instance, a tiresome tendency to pose several questions in succession). And while she begins to explore the complexities of romance in the ethereal realm of academia, she doesn't delve deep enough. The obscurity of the subject and terseness of Novak's tone mean that few readers outside the target intellectual audience-say, those who will understand "Margaret had seen Anna as Recamier to her own de Stael"-may take notice. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In respected art historian Novak's second novel (after Alice's Neck), Angelica Bookbinder is a thirtysomething Boston literature professor on sabbatical who hopes to win tenure by writing a book about 19th-century American intellectual, writer, and early feminist Margaret Fuller. Educated in the classics, Fuller was a brilliant conversationalist; an editor (with Emerson) of the Transcendentalist newspaper, the Dial; and an advocate for the rights of the mentally ill and the welfare of prostitutes. Trying to decide which aspect of Fuller's life to examine, Angelica begins probing Fuller's search for romantic fulfillment with both men and women. Equally captivating is the mystery of Fuller's years in Italy, where she gave birth to a son and possibly married the child's father. As she delves into Fuller's romantic liaisons, Angelica begins exploring such relationships in her own life, which leads to odd entanglements. The steady revelation of these two women's parallel lives keeps the reader's interest going, as does the sly, dead-on satiric observations. Peppering her text with cultural anecdotes from both eras, Novak also captures the centuries-old dilemma about whether it's best to follow one's heart or one's head. Recommended for all academic and most public library fiction collections.-Maureen Neville, Trenton P.L., NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.