In 1950s Syracuse, a young widow is haunted by the specter of the "Porter," an officious, invisible gentleman who harangues her whenever she gives thought to such unpleasant topics as "Death Malice, Disease, Peeing in Pants, Deformity, Snits, Ignorance, Bad Manners, Sorrow, Rage, Puffery."
But Charlotte McGuffey, the heroine of Corinth resident Mary Hays' first novel, isn't crazy. She's simply a bit too cerebral for her own good: a devout Christian Scientist who believes with Mary Baker Eddy that "Imperfection is the result of an imperfect mind." To control the mind, as Charlotte's Porter does, is to control one's experience of reality. If depression and illness try to climb aboard the mental "train," why not simply bounce them at the door?
Why not indeed? That's the question this absorbing novel poses. As a story about small towns and family ties -- particularly the mother-child bond -- Learning to Drive evokes comparisons with novels in the Oprah's Book Club canon. But Hays' gritty vision of rural life is more reminiscent of Alice Munro, and she finds engaging ways to broach the old question about the role of spirituality in a material world.
If all you know -- or think you know -- about Christian Scientists is that they don't go to doctors, this novel is an eye-opener. Hays, who was raised in the faith but no longer practices, gives us a balanced, if slightly acerbic, introduction. Christian Science, as she depicts it, has a lot in common with more mainstream American belief systems in its resolute idealism. Eddy's teachings appeal to the control freak in us all -- but also to the dreamer who wants to believe in mind over matter and the power of positive thinking.
Charlotte is such a dreamer. She's going back to school to finish her B.A. and struggles with her physics class because "she had never believed in molecules as the foundation of matter." But some realities are hard to dismiss. Her 3-year-old son isn't talking like other children, and her relationship with Melvin, her non-Scientist husband, is beginning to fray.
After Melvin steps in front of a car one snowy morning in St. Johnsbury, Charlotte starts to turn the mantras of Christian Science back on herself. If thoughts are the only reality, could her wish for a separation have caused her husband's death? Wracked by guilt and trying to grieve, she's brought up short by the joined forces of the Porter and her older sister, a licensed Scientist practitioner who chillingly tells her, "You think you should be sad. But that's not so." Not as naïve as she seems at first, Charlotte begins to suspect that life is messier than either of these authority figures will admit.
Learning to Drive is a novel about what it means -- and why it's worth it -- to confront the mess and let some of the more unsavory characters onto the train. Things change for Charlotte during a summer in the hamlet of Beede, Vermont, where her husband made his living taking idyllic calendar photographs of aged churches and turning maples. But Beede is no outpost of bucolic serenity. It's a hotbed of personal conflicts and gossip, with McCarthyites running the general store and suspected "pinkos" -- artsy folk from the city -- doing their much-speculated-about thing in a house on the hill.
Hays is attentive to the details that make characters seem like people we know, in all their essential, often irritating complexity. When Charlotte meets the ringleader of the bohemians, a dashing sculptor who builds spiral stairways to nowhere, the result is pretty much what you'd expect. And yet, the sensitive artist can also be a self-absorbed bore, just as Charlotte's buttoned-up sister is a tiger in the bedroom -- which we learn courtesy of her husband.
One of the pleasures of this book is the dry irony that seeps through the omniscient narrative voice, providing a counterweight to Eddy's programmatically positive vision of the world. Sometimes it's an offhand observation about human nature: "Charlotte had noticed that when people went to any trouble at all to say they were telling you the truth, they were generally lying." Sometimes it's an extended description like that of a fire raging through downtown Beede (see excerpt), which gives us a sense of just how far natural forces are from bowing to the human mind's control.
The pace of Learning to Drive is leisurely, almost meandering. Rather than building her prose to a climax, Hays is the sort of writer who likes to deflate a crisis situation with wry asides. But when resolution of Charlotte's conflict arrives, it's well wrought and surprisingly satisfying. And Hays doesn't play Porter by attempting to close every question she's raised. Charlotte's beautiful, stubbornly remote son, whom readers will recognize as autistic, poses a challenge to Christian Science and medical science alike. And yet, as a sympathetic doctor notes, the boy "seems to have a sense of humor" -- much like the novel, which offers comic relief as a healing alternative to the rigors of Scientist perfectionism.