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May 2017: The Door (Szabo)

posted Jun 5, 2017, 8:41 PM by Sherrill Lavagnino   [ updated Jun 5, 2017, 8:41 PM ]

We had a lovely and cozy book club meeting on May 10th, as eight of us gathered around Ros’s dining room table for some tasty lentil and coconut soup and a lively discussion of Magda Szabo’s novel The Door.  The novel describes the tempestuous relationship between a young writer and her elderly housekeeper.   There is an intriguing collection of secondary characters, including the writer’s husband, several local residents and a few members of the housekeeper’s extended family.   However, the only other character to rival the two women in importance is an intelligent, and almost human, male dog named Viola.  

The housekeeper, Emerence, is a force of nature indeed. Fiercely independent, she has an almost superhuman capacity for work.  She seems to disdain the intellectual labors of the writer and her academic husband, though over the years she develops a respect for their efforts which almost amounts to acceptance.  The different values and experiences of the two women lead to a variety of intense arguments and abusive fights.  Still, they develop a deep affection for, and loyalty to, each other.  The novel begins with the writer’s confession that she will ultimately betray this affection and loyalty, with tragic consequences.  It is our curiosity about this betrayal that drives the narrative forward.

Everyone in our group enjoyed the book.  We were all entranced by Emerence, though we had an interesting discussion about whether or not she was likeable.  To be in a relationship with Emerence is to cede control to her.  Her unique perspective and passion for life on her terms would certainly be hard to resist.  However, her manipulative behavior would drive most of us crazy, as would her pride and her reluctance to trust the people closest to her and to accept their help.  The writer certainly struggles to figure out how to sustain her relationship with Emerence.   As readers, we sympathized with her difficulties, but in the end, it was hard not to share some of Emerence’s disapproval of the writer’s choices and values.   In a sense, this is one of the triumphs of the book, since most reader’s values probably align more closely with those of the writer, so in siding with Emerence we are compelled to reanalyze what we think really matters.   This is just one of the many ways the book triggers philosophical reflection, and several of us commented that we wished that we knew more about  Hungarian history so that we could have had a deeper understanding of the novel’s mythical, symbolic and cultural significance.  Surely, this intellectual curiosity is evidence that this was a great book club choice indeed.

Literarily Yours, 

Karen B