His 1998 debut, Animal Husbandry, which inspired the movie Someone Like You, was “about being dumped and moving in with a woman,” Ziegman says. “Study!” When she wrote “Loving the Big Bird” (2000), she was actually worried that she would have to have a child on her own and that “she” (2002) was about his husband’s very real and very beautiful ex-wife. Siegman says the 2020 novel Separation Anxiety was about a woman who has her dog strapped to her in a baby carriage, just like a certain novelist who won’t be named.
Laura Zigman’s “Separation Anxiety” tackles middle-aged loneliness with a perfect blend of sadness and humor.
So it is not surprising that this drama is at the heart of “Small World”. It has happened in real life too.
Zigman’s oldest sister, born with a rare bone disease, died at the age of 7. In Ziegman’s play, the middle Melishman’s daughter dies of cerebral palsy at the age of 10, causing an estrangement between Joyce and Lydia, the two survivors. Decades later, after 30 years on opposite coasts, Lydia moves into Joyce’s apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Both women are newly divorced. Each hopes that the other will heal his childhood wounds. Spoiler alert: fat luck.
“I started ‘Small World,'” Ziegman tells me, imagining all the ways these sisters push each other’s buttons, and how their own needs, overshadowed as children, would affect their adult relationships—in their defunct marriages and Together.”
Showcasing Ziegman’s emotional range, “Small World” is peppered with the gravity of its true origins. This novel is as funny as it is witty, thought-provoking, and intensely relatable.
Is there a sibling alive who hasn’t simultaneously felt twinned with, and almost identical to, someone who shares not only their history and family tree, but their DNA? “That’s what sisters do,” Joyce tells a friend. “We fight each other, we envy each other, we punish each other for reasons we don’t even understand.”
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In a novel, as in life, the essence of character is best captured in the act of problem solving. To that end, Ziegman puts the protagonist Joyce and her sister in a figurative wrestling ring in decidedly modern circumstances: Stan and Sonia, the warrior sisters’ upstairs neighbors, have turned their living room into a yoga studio whose sound effects soothe Joyce’s inner peace. destroys . Step up, up the stairs, the students go. Slap, slap, move their mats on the uncarpeted floor. Aggressive Joyce screams in Defcon mode. Passive (or is she passive-aggressive?) Lydia secretly befriends Stan and Sonya and becomes a regular in their studio.
Furious to discover Lydia’s betrayal, Joyce visits her neighbor Yogi and sister Kat. Sonia walks in silently, her long hair in her usual bun, her soft white pants looking like she’s floating on the couch instead of walking on her feet. Joyce threatens to report Stan and Sonya to the landlord and the town, providing the perfect setup for a classic Zigman social satire.
“why are you doing this?” Sonia asks.
“Because. It’s. Illegal,” Joyce replied.
Sonia replies, “Joyce, this is Cambridge. “Also known as the People’s Republic of Cambridge. Home of anti-war protesters, civil rights activists, and acid-pop country music lovers. Freethinkers. Outlaws… Maybe if you come and try a class, you can get through.”
You carry a lot of emotional weight. I feel it.”
“We have to do this, Joyce,” interjects Lydia. “Maybe we’ll learn something about ourselves and each other. Maybe that’s what will ultimately change our relationship.”
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“I’m tired of trying to see me,” ruminates Joyce, seething behind her bedroom door, battered in the wake of her failed peace talks. It’s like childhood again: it doesn’t matter what I want or don’t need.”
Never one for emotional restraint, Joyce jumps out of bed and writes an eviction notice and drops it under Lydia’s bedroom door—an impulse that is revealed when the story twists at the last minute of character-altering family secrets, past and present. He regrets it. Meeting a kinder, kinder Joyce is satisfying, though the price of her redemption is high.
In the “acknowledgments” of the book, Ziegman distinguishes between the real and fictional story lines. “When I told my sister Linda that I was going to write a novel about two sisters who … finally came to terms with the death of their other sister, how it shaped their family and shaped them,” she writes. I trust you. Is there a better gift than this?”
Not for this singer. If a rough pantser like Joyce can change her less admirable features, I thought, maybe I can too.
Meredith Maran is a journalist, critic, and author of Old Me: Reinventing Me Late in Life and other books.
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