Monday, April 25, 2011

Awakening Maureen Gibbon's 'Thief'

Originally printed June 28, 2010.

If you're looking for a novel that describes the beauty of a northern Minnesota summer -- that makes you experience the quiet reflection that comes by living in an semi-isolated and under-insulated cabin, that goes into lyrical details about how to watch out for drunken boaters when you take your soul-refreshing moonlight swims -- then by all means, read Maureen Gibbon's "Thief."

The Minnesota Tourism Association should copy some of the Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate's most scenic paragraphs and stick them straight into flyers and brochures to convey the beauty of region's lake-filled landscape.

But tourist associations -- along with general readers -- also should be warned. Although Gibbon's novel evokes a powerful and haunting sense of place, her novel is based on a downright storyline: Suzanne, a 30-something high school English teacher who was raped as a teenager, tries to make sense of her past trauma by starting a letter-writing relationship with Alpha Breville, a convicted rapist who is doing time in Stillwater State Prison.

The chronological setting for the novel is a little unclear. The summer in question takes place sometime before the Internet has become such an all-encompassing aspect of our lives. The complicated relationship begins when Breville's hard-copy letter arrives as one of several responses to a personal ad Suzanne has placed in the newspaper nearest to her backwoods, summer rental.

When Suzanne first sees the prison's return address, both she and the reader consider the letter so inappropriate that they are ready to throw it in the trash unopened. But then, she asks, what's the harm of seeing what the convict has to say? Especially given that the other responses come across as far too mundane or overly needy.

Breville's first letter proves to be both insightful and well-written. He obviously is someone who realizes the inappropriateness of even attempting this conversation. Someone who is pragmatically aware that the letter exchange may end at any point. Someone looking to make amends for his past and who recognizes that the power in this proposal lies in the hands of the recipient on the outside.

When Suzanne answers the letter -- when she rationalizes to herself that she can stop this conversation at any point if it ever seems unsafe or overwhelming -- most readers will be offering themselves the same rationalizations for why they decide to read on:*"Thief" is so well-written. The descriptions are so powerful. The potential for some kind of catharsis seems just around the corner on every page.

And Gibbon makes it obvious that neither Suzanne nor Breville are being completely honest with themselves -- let alone with each other. Whenever Breville seems at risk of over-poeticizing his solitude or downplaying the violence of prison life, Suzanne is ready to call him on it. And when Suzanne says she's only writing as a means of torturing this man she has never met, Breville willingly accepts that role but only to show that she's writing for other reasons as well.

It's only when Suzanne and Breville start to go into the details of his crime (a hopped-up home invasion that included the rape of the homeowner) and her trauma (a complicated date rape situation), that readers see Suzanne slowly recognizing how much less power in this relationship she has than she originally thought.

And when Suzanne decides to make the long drive down to Stillwater for to visit Breville face-to-face, the messiness of her real life -- sped along by her flesh-and-blood relationships with several other men -- begins to crack through the safety and seclusion of this odd epistolary relationship.

It's not surprising that Gibbon's "Thief" has been compared often to Kate Chopin's "The Awakening." As in that 1899 novel, the stillness of the landscape surrounding Suzanne helps draw even more attention to emotional complexity in which she reacts to a socially inappropriate relationship.

But Gibbon, a rape survivor herself, gives no clear sense of how to judge Suzanne's actions. They may represent a healthy departure from Suzanne having to play the stereotypical roles of either victim or vigilante. Or they ultimately may prove to be self-destructive -- leaving Suzanne, like Edna Pontellier in Chopin's novel, to lose herself in that beautiful natural setting.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

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