August 14, 2020KR Reviews

“Full Up of Feeling” for The Lightness by Emily Temple

New York, NY: William Morrow, 2020. 288 pages. $26.99.

Emily Temple’s debut novel washes over the reader like childhood, if your childhood was spent attending an all-girls spiritual camp in the mountains, and it moves against you like summer, if summer were only hot-blooded friendships, nights spent on cliff’s edges, adolescent desire so encompassing it cannot be allowed to live. The Lightness reminded me, in the days I spent with it, that I love to read.

The book is narrated by Olivia Ellis, sixteen during the summer the story occurs but who grows much older by the point of narration. This separation between character-voice and narrator-voice is an excellent employment of the long retrospective, allowing the writer—and reader—access to all the immediacy and hot wild yearning of youth with the ability to pull back at key moments into the calm contemplation of age and experience.

Temple signals this disparity early in the novel when Olivia says, “You should not, under any circumstances, expect me to be the hero of this story.” Olivia sees her role as that of an observer, an analyst’s attempt to understand something from her youth that is impossible to understand. This tonal balance is vital to the book’s success.

The Lightness is set at a mountainside spiritual resort called the Levitation Center, named for rumors that one can levitate on its land Olivia arrives at the summer retreat for troubled teenage girls hoping to learn more about her Buddhist father, who had disappeared from another of the Center’s events some months earlier. Partnered with this ample dose of engaging mystery-thriller, The Lightness is, at its heart, a coming-of-age story, with many of the genre’s associated tropes.

Olivia quickly takes up with a trio of enigmatic girls, long-term Center attendees who know and execute their archetypal roles to perfection: Serena is the pensive, elusive leader with an almost mystical magnetism; Laurel, sensual and sexual, is the beautiful one, there to crack jokes and complain; and Janet keeps the peace, quiet and athletic, sharp but kind.

Though the characters risk feeling overly familiar—Serena especially possesses almost all the qualities of a manic pixie dream girl, including her penchant for disappearing—they never feel flat or un-fleshed. What keeps the book from falling back into archetype is Temple’s ability to acknowledge each girl’s respective agenda, even if the narrator is not aware; for example, in a surprising and rewarding twist, Janet—someone the reader pegs early as the quiet peace-keeper—instead becomes the instigator of the sexual transgression that kicks off the climax.

Temple avoids vacant tropes because she allows desire to be the driving force of the narrative. The book, and the people within it, cannot be anything other than alive, because only things that are alive can want this much.

The desire in the book is both sexual and platonic, rightly capturing something about female adolescent attraction that is difficult to understand. Temple raises the question many have asked themselves before: Do I want to be with you or do I want to be like you? In adolescence, and even beyond, it’s often hard to tell the difference. There’s nothing quite as desperate as girlhood yearning, as this book aims to express.

These girls are caught at a crossroads of identity and desire. They’re “trouble,” Olivia explains, calling them “slick-finish girls, cat-eye girls, hot-blooded girls,” girls who “reveled,” “left marks,” “drank whiskey and worse.” Girls who are “so full up of feeling that they couldn’t simply do their times tables or learn their French conjugations or go to the movies on a Saturday night.”

Being so “full up” is enough to drive anyone wild. Desire becomes sexuality, becomes identity, becomes something to own or even destroy. No matter the focus of their desire, each of the girls at the Center is overcome by the need “to possess it, to become it, and to squeeze it unmercifully in [their] hands until it died.” Such consumption courses throughout the book: Olivia-the-girl is obsessed with horses, an affection which she only knows how to express by putting a matted clump of horse hair in her mouth; Olivia-the-adult then explains the science behind why brains overload toward violence (“I could eat you up”) when met with something they find they want too much.

Along with consumption, the question of ownership also fuels their desire. One of the most memorable scenes in the novel is when the girls feed Luke, a twenty-something gardener at the retreat who functions as the outward manifestation of their sexuality and desire, a bowl of chili mixed with Serena’s menstrual blood, because the girls determine that to consume, or to be consumed by, another person is the best way to exert ownership and express desire.

Ownership is synonymous with attraction for Olivia and the others. “Mine, mine, mine,” Olivia says, discussing the girls’ constant need to touch each other: “Your body is a toy . . . Give it here,” she says, “let me put my hands on it.” She calls the amount of touching between them that summer “brazen,” holding hands, rubbing each other’s shoulders, braiding hair, sharing beds. “I had no experience being touched in that way, not so casually, with such easy affection,” she says, noting that at first it was “disconcerting” but soon she “grew to crave it.”

The girls touch each other because they recognize that “a group is more powerful than a single practitioner,” which refers to both their friendships and their shared interest in Buddhism. Much of the book’s central questions are rooted in the Buddhist religion, including Serena’s desire to levitate. Olivia is fascinated by these ideas and these girls, who follow the same religion as her father. She envies their easy belief. My favorite scene in the book is when the girls put strawberries, leaf-end first, into their mouth so that the fruit poke out, triangle-shaped, like bright red seeded tongues. To prove their commitment to “intellect versus instinct,” they cut off the tips where they emerge from their lips. Olivia struggles to make the cut: is it strawberry or tongue? The brain is nervous. The higher mind says strawberry, but the “snake brain” says tongue, and “it didn’t matter what I knew,” Olivia says, “our eyes are liars; the best.”

I quote from the  book only because many of the book’s major pleasures emerge from the individual lines, emphasizing rhythmic metaphor and delicious image. Temple writes paragraphs like a poet, but plots pages with all the momentum necessary to sustain a longer narrative—such as when she paints the picture of the mountain clearing where the girls spend most of their time. The clearing has a section that juts “out over the drop, coming to a sharp point, as if accusing the horizon of something.” The first time she sees it, early in the novel, Olivia notes how “dizzying” it was “to stand at the edge.”

You’ve heard of Chekhov’s gun. Let’s call this Temple’s cliff. You can guess how this ends.

Anticipating the end, however, does nothing to diminish the urgency or intrigue of the book. After all, as Olivia notes, “I would never have left [Serena and the others] alone, even if I had known what was going to happen. Never. There are some things I simply cannot resist.” I know what she means, as this book is now, for me, one of those things.