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It’s no knock on Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry that people appear more interested in the story of her life than in the glory of her verses. She was far from prolific, publishing fewer than 100 poems in her 68 years, and she led a fascinating life. She exchanged decades’ worth of letters with America’s finest poets, most of which have been collected in eminently accessible volumes. She has been the subject of biographies and plays and now, perhaps most engaging of all, her story provides the plot of Michael Sledge’s enchanting first novel.
The action begins when 40-year-old Elizabeth sails across the equator en route to Rio de Janeiro. She intends to stay for two weeks before continuing her travels through South America and returning to New York. Instead, she falls under the spell of Lota de Macedo Soares and stays in Brazil for 17 years. Lota is a dynamo of a woman who is building a modernist mansion in the middle of the jungle, a house that becomes the perpetually rootless Elizabeth’s first real home. Lota is loyal, loving, and intelligent—and also driven, demanding, and headstrong. Elizabeth has met her match.
Sledge does a remarkable job of conjuring the writer’s world. Readers swoon for the sounds and rhythms of Brazilian life just as Elizabeth did. His prose is no mere imitation of Bishop’s voice, but those who know her work will experience the thrill of recognition: The retired policewoman from the ship is Miss Breen from the poem “Arrival at Santos”; the toucan she loves so much is the bird she told Ilse and Kit Barker about in a letter from 1952; the childhood memories that flow when Elizabeth settles in Samambaia show up in the story “In the Village” that appears in Questions of Travel. It’s fun to puzzle these references out, but someone who has never read a word of Elizabeth Bishop’s writing will be just as swept up in the novel’s action.
The book is undoubtedly a love story, and as might be expected of a relationship between two accomplished and sensitive women, it is a complicated one. Both struggle with demons—Elizabeth with self-doubt and loneliness that leads to destructive drinking, and Lota with an irresistible need to prove herself. When she first arrives in Brazil, Elizabeth is able to manage her “thirst,” and at Lota’s urging, she uses prescription drugs to resist alcohol. However, as Lota succumbs to her own weakness—destroying both her health and her relationship as she works obsessively to design and build Aterro do Flamengo, Rio’s equivalent of Central Park—Elizabeth goes back to her old ways, finding reassurance in a bottle. The portrayal of alcoholism is all too believable—Elizabeth knows that this appetite threatens everything, but that doesn’t mean she can avoid it, nor does she always want to.
The More I Owe You is an intoxicating read—I found myself stealing time from other obligations so that I could race through its pages, even though I knew how the story would turn out—but the ultimate testament is what comes after. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who, upon reaching the end, ran to her shelves and soon enough to a bookstore to spend many more hours with Elizabeth Bishop.
THE MORE I OWE YOU:
By Michael Sledge
Paperback, 328 pages, $15.95