Thursday, January 14, 2010

Field Guide by Gross

Field Guide / Gwendolen Gross
New York: Henry Holt, c2001.
274 p.

This is Gwendolen Gross' first novel, and one I came across by chance. The cover was so lovely, and the storyline involves Australia and scientific research into bats. Irresistible, really!

Fortunately, I enjoyed reading this novel as well as admiring its appearance. It is the story of Annabel Mendelssohn, an American who has taken on a semester of field work in Australia, studying the spectacled fruit bat. She comes from a scientifically minded family, and has gone into biology while her parents and siblings have their own fields. One reason that she has gone abroad to do her field studies is an attempt to distance herself from the terrible loss of her older brother, who died in a diving accident while undertaking research.

In Australia, Annabel meets up with a few other students, all described according to how much they interact with her. She is most bothered by her roommate, a stylish young woman who doesn't much like Annabel, and in turn Annabel thinks that Sabrina will be useless at field work as she cares so much more about her appearance and about having a fling than the work. This relationship seems to me to point out a certain immaturity in Annabel, a belief that she has to be committed to her research at the expense of any other passion in life. Anyone who might care for their appearance or, indeed, for another person more than their work is somehow flawed, somehow lazy. This is, perhaps, what she needs to believe in order to explain her elder brother's behaviour to herself; his actions are sprinkled throughout the story in flashbacks and it is evident to everybody else that he has some real issues with possibly depression, possibly some other kind of social disorder. But to Annabel he is simply focused on his work and responsible only to that.

Annabel's loss of her brother is like a stone in her shoe, poking at her constantly. It's not so much the loss itself as the uncertainty as to whether it was an accident or suicide that is causing her pain, and adds to how distant she feels from her sister and parents. This separation is echoed in her physical distance from them, back in North America. She tries to settle in and make a place for herself during this dislocating experience of travelling halfway around the world to further her studies. Among her fellow students, she makes friends with Maud, an older woman who seems more sure of herself than does Annabel, and she fixates on one of her professors, John Goode, who is literally old enough to be her father. She feels a sexual attraction to him, despite the fact that he mocks himself for cheating on his wife and being cut off from her and his two adult sons as a result. He has a habit of getting so engrossed in his work that he forgets anyone is waiting for him, or indeed is right beside him. Annabel's attraction to this kind of unassailable neglect seems symptomatic of her behaviour throughout the story. She is unable to make connections, to feel tethered to anyone else.

The book is full of Annabel's thoughts and ruminations about her situation, past and present, including emails to her sister in America. It also intersperses chapters focused on Leon Goode, son of Professor Goode, who is working in a science museum in Boston. When Prof. Goode disappears near the end of the book, Leon is called home, and the two storylines converge. Annabel and Leon are clearly created for one another, and they meet and immediately feel a connection. At the end of the book, having not been able to locate John Goode, having been driven away from her research site by anti-Green loggers, she essentially gives up and goes home. This seems alright to her, however, as she is going home with Leon. She has made a connection.

The man Annabel is at first attracted to, John Goode, reminds her of Robert (she remarks upon this herself) -- and he disappears at the end, leaving her with the same sense of uncertainty as had the loss of Robert. This sense of loss, a loss with no closure, is what ties she and Leon Goode together. However, this ephemeral connection, added to Annabel's naivety and/or immaturity as evidenced by her refusal to entertain the idea that Robert's death was suicide (as the other members of her family suspect) and well as her inability to cope with her roommates, do not hold out great hope for a future for Leon and Annabel. I got the impression that eventually they would both grow up, and away from defining themselves through loss, and at that point they'd move on. I really can't see much future in this relationship, as it bears the weight of so much neediness, on both sides.

However, this analysis of the characters was one of the enjoyable aspects of the story. Why would they act like this, or want to do that? The narrative was well constructed, parallelling the experiences of Annabel's family and the Goodes, and it is not easy to write a book with a character who reveals such weaknesses but is still a compelling focus for the story. I didn't really like Annabel, but I respected her scientific work, and her confusion in trying to readjust to a life without her very strongly influential older brother. Her reactions to others; her descriptions of her time at the research site, alone in the forest watching bats; her constant watching and measuring herself against others' decisions and actions; her communications with her sister; all these are very revealing of her youthful and confused state. I also liked the way the book ended without tying everything up neatly. It reflected Annabel's state of mind, how loss is not always neat and easy to get over, but also gave us hope at the conclusion that she was coming to a point where she was ready to move on with life.

Set in a location and occupation unfamiliar to me, it offered lots to learn about. I found it pretty good for a first novel, with only a few slow bits and a couple of bumps. If you must have everything resolved definitively at the end of a book you will probably find this one a bit annoying, but if you can live with not knowing, or knowing only that the state of not-knowing is the point of the story, you will probably find something of interest in it. The complex main character and an unusual choice of setting makes this story particularly intriguing.


  1. How fun when the characters are complex and in an interesting setting. And the bookcover is really pretty.

  2. I like reading books about nature and science- how intriguing to find it in a fiction book. I didn't read all your post because now I want to read this one, and have it surprise me.

  3. I hadn't heard of this one before, but character explorations of this type tend to suck me in. Annabel sounds like an interesting character, the type I like to read about, even if I wouldn't like knowing her in life.

  4. Sounds interesting! I'll add it to my "to read" list.

  5. This sounds like fun, but I think Annabel would drive me a bit too crazy. lol

  6. Stefanie - it is really pretty and the cover is in that matte paper that feels so nice - it is really what first tempted me!

    Jeane - I would actually have liked even more science in it - but it gave a great feel for how field scientists actually have to study.

    Teresa - true! I wouldn't much like Annabel in real life; I was often impatient with her in the narrative. But such a realistic character makes for a great story.

    booksslicedanddiced - thanks for stopping by! Yes, I was pleased that a random reading choice turned out to be quite interesting.

    Eva - she just might...especially her focus on the men around her... ;)


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