by Donna Bailey Nurse
Harper Avenue - $22.99
Mitzi Bytes, by Kerry Clare, has been received by reviewers as a light, farcical take on the blogging life, as well as a delightful reworking of the beloved children’s tale Harriet the Spy. With her first novel, Clare highlights the link between traditional storytelling and more contemporary technological modes such as blogging. Furthermore, she charmingly observes the connection between girlhood imagination and women’s inner lives.
Her heroine is Sarah Lundy, a seemingly ordinary wife and mother in possession of a long-held secret. Sarah is the true identity of celebrity blogger Mitzi Bytes, infamous for the scathing observations of family and friends that have earned her a berth on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Naturally, she has been careful to change the names of the people she writes about. Unfortunately, this does not prevent one canny reader from figuring out the truth. The aggrieved individual- who remains nameless- is threatening to blow Sarah’s cover.
The novel is a clever adaptation of Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy about a school girl who loses her friends after they discover what she has written about them in her notebooks. Clare even reproduces the hilarious iconic scene in which Harriet is caught hiding inside her neighbour’s dumbwaiter. In the adult version Sarah, who is snooping around her sister-in-law’s home, must squeeze into a dumbwaiter to avoid detection. Not surprisingly, adult spies turn out to be a whole lot creepier than child spies.
Clare, author of the long-running blog Pickle Me This and editor at 49thShelf.com, did not read Harriet the Spy until she was well into her twenties. It was another Fitzhugh book that obsessed her as a child.
“The Long Secret was the sequel to Harriet the Spy,” says Clare. “It was incredible. It was about the character Beth Ellen. I remember it meant a lot to me.
“I eventually read Harriet when I was 27,” continues Clare, “because a blogger I loved was writing about it. I don’t think I would have appreciated all the nuances of the story as a child, but I really did as an adult who writes. The book has a lot to say about the writing life - and it’s pretty hard stuff. For me, it was mostly about the idea of being disliked. I think that’s inevitable when you write. Not everyone is going to like what you have to say.”
Of course, Sarah of Mitzi Bytes is not only a writer who is sometimes unlikable; she is also a woman who is sometimes unlikable - an occasionally obnoxious heroine, which even today sounds like a contradiction in terms. Sarah may be devoted to her husband and dazzled by her little girls - a domestic goddess who makes time to volunteer with pregnant teens; but she can also be selfish, insensitive and a little cruel. She is not above sharing with her readers the humiliating details of her sister-in-law’s fragile marriage, or gossiping about a friend’s handling of her autistic son. In terms of genre, Mitzi Bytes could fairly be described as a modern version of the 19th century domestic novel. Sarah, however, proves a far cry from the ideal Victorian heroine known as “the angel in the house.”
Clare, who like Sarah, is the happily married mother of two girls, enjoys women’s fiction because “there is always so much going on and a lot of underlying humour.” In Mitzi Bytes we accompany Sarah as she delivers her daughter to school, amusingly attempting to evade the other “mother people.” Some days she grabs coffee with a dear, if annoying, friend. Back home, she might head upstairs to her office where she can “watch” neighbours through her picture window, write her blog and work on freelance assignments. In the evenings she reads to her children and enjoys alone time with her husband. Often they make love. Clare deftly shapes daily details into a seamless narrative that reflects Sarah’s complexity and the dimension of her days. She is working out a way of “writing a woman’s life,” to borrow a phrase from critic Carolyn Heilbrun.
The novel takes up this theme. The women in Sarah’s book club, for instance, passionately read Virginia Woolf, an author whose experimental narratives were among the first to attempt to represent the fullness of female experience. As well, Sarah’s part-time job involves transcribing taped interviews of wives of World War Two veterans: “The extraordinary ordinary stories that only get peripheral treatment in the history books,” thinks Sarah.
These women had raised their families in the neighbourhood, walking the same sidewalks, living in the same houses, dragging tired feet up and down these narrow staircases. And Sarah kept getting lost inside their stories, forgetting to type – caught up in the spaces between sentences, how words trailed off, the nuance and tone, all that stayed unsaid beneath the surface.
Clare grew up in Peterborough, Ontario in the 1970s and 80s. The first thing she remembers writing was a poem for Remembrance Day in Grade 3. “Of course, it wasn’t very good,” she recalls, laughing. “But I remember it came together in a way I didn’t quite feel responsible for.” Nevertheless, from that day, her teacher, who was impressed, began to encourage her creativity.
She decided to attend Peterborough Collegiate, a high school for the performing arts, because she thought she might meet quirky, like-minded individuals. As Clare puts it merrily, “Being ordinary at that school would have been a liability.”
Clare’s parents were encouragingly open-minded. Her mother a trained nurse, transferred her skills to the classroom where she worked with high school students with special needs. Her father eventually established a business selling photocopiers.
“Neither of my parents started off on a strict career path, so that gave me a kind of freedom,” says Clare. “I did not have to know exactly what I wanted to do. I found their example inspiring.”
Early on, her mother and father recognized her affinity for writing and were completely supportive. “I guess I could have benefitted from having an astute editor for a mother,” says Clare. “But the fact that I had a mother who liked everything I did, gave me a certain kind of confidence.”
Motherhood is another of Clare’s seminal themes. She published a well-received anthology The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood (Goose Lane) in 2014. In Mitzi Bytes, Clare skilfully dramatizes the breathy staccato of children’s dialogue and conveys the sweet, damp weight of small, clinging limbs. She manages to communicate the almost physical intensity of the mother/child bond. In this respect, Clare recalls Rachel Cusk, particularly Cusk’s tragicomic collection Arlington Park. In those stories, well-educated women in a London neighbourhood arrive at the startling realization that their autonomy has been hijacked by motherhood and marriage.
Even at her most droll, Cusk’s view of domesticity is much darker than Clare’s. That said, in Mitzi Bytes we come upon a number of horrific incidents involving children. News reports of babies drowned in bathtubs or abandoned in garages. Distinct references are made to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012.
“Sending a child out into the world is a huge act of faith,” Clare admits. “Having a child is a huge act of faith. It’s a dangerous world,” she adds.
Still, for Clare, Mitzi Bytes is “an ode to the overwhelming awesomeness of being someone’s mother.” And at the same time, a celebration of the happy marriage. Sarah and Chris, her husband, are deeply content, even though she somewhat resents his unwillingness to alter his work hours. The situation becomes a trade-off rather than a standoff, with Sarah accepting responsibility for the majority of the childcare as a fair (enough) exchange for financial comfort and a happy marriage.
“I wanted to write a novel where marital strife wasn’t a plot point,” Clare explains. “I think incorporating things like infidelity can be a crutch. I know a lot of happy marriages,” she adds.” But you wouldn’t see that on the best sellers’ lists.”
Incorporating the happy marriage is one more way Clare is attempting to challenge the popular narrative of contemporary women’s lives.
Mitzi Bytes, like many a slightly, farcical tale, turns on the question of secret identities. It is anticipation of Sarah’s unmasking that keeps readers flipping pages. We also derive pleasure from the novel’s relationship to Harriet the Spy which evokes the boundless joy of our earliest literary encounters. Still, it is important to acknowledge Clare’s formal concerns: Narratives that allow for the multifariousness, psychological complexity and creative autonomy of artistic women. Clare’s experimental narratives make her a writer to watch.