Paradise Close by Lisa Russ Spaar
Paradise Close (Persea Press, 2022) is the debut novel by poet Lisa Russ Spaar, winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Award, the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize, and many other esteemed recognitions. Paradise Close is powerful fiction, its story told with irresistible momentum. Still, Spaar retains from her poetic style a fascinated fetish for language. Paradise Close reminds us how the boundaries we attempt to draw between teenage rage and adult stability, first and last love, waking and dreaming, blue and violet, paradise and hellscape, are often illusory and wavering. Her cast of characters are so mysterious and ethereal that at the outset they feel like mystical creatures borrowed from fairytale lore, but then unravel to extreme complexity, entrancing readers through their honest, raw, and frightening humanity.
Spaar’s narration grants readers a bird’s-eye view of multiple intertwining tales. There’s Marlise, an anorexic teen marooned to her own debilitating sickness in her family’s massive, unkept property after premature release from a youth mental institution, as well as her wayward artist boyfriend, Silas, and his journey to save her. Later in the novel, we find Marlise’s mother, Beatrice, attempting escape from domestic servitude long before her daughter’s isolation. Then Emma, a talented but overlooked art professor caught in an unfulfilling marriage who falls unexpectedly in love. To, finally, Tee, a clock-obsessed bachelor living in self-exile after a flame-gilded but failed romance. Spaar meditates on how we each tinker with the small craft of our lives, unaware of the grand design to which we contribute and are inherited. Paradise Close considers the way longing is an invisible legacy, calling us to gaze backward at the heartbreak in our blood. Readers witness as both joy and grief flow like currents through generations. Though we may not always recognize their mark in our predecessors or know how they will take shape in the lives of our children, we each invisibly take on and pass down ache.
Through Spaar’s compassionate imagination, the myriad of characters sometimes appear like different frequencies of the same soul. As if in different incarnations, crossing paths, unbound by linear time, each character sings a note forming one enormous and rising requiem. Spaar seems to know that within each of us lives a lawless criminal; a pissed-off runaway; a child reeling from the shock of first harm; a damsel awaiting her last hope; an indomitable and reckless protector; a sweltering, late-July bloom falling open; a deadly blizzard; a guarded hermit; a hungry lover; a knowing crone; and a past-less, nameless, completely new being, crawling out of the wreckage of the old.
Paradise Close moves through time and plotlines by its own intuitive logic. Certain moments in each character’s story dilate to the size of aurora borealis: secretive sex in a noon-sunlit hayloft, a life-altering confession in a room full of parasols floating upside down, a spin-out off the side of a highway and fall through dark air, these scenes will haunt and entrance you. Then, as they do in lived experience, years pass in a blurred gush, a spun kaleidoscope. The novel takes the shape of a glassy labyrinth, sometimes depositing you in a stranger’s bedroom, sometimes into the arms of true love, but more often, Paradise Close narrates existence’s cosmic strangeness of near-misses, momentary glimpses, and that eerie, electric feeling of passing your hand over a divider and sensing someone trapped on the other side, looking for you as well.
Spaar, like an expert sword juggler, demonstrates her ability to spin the massive universe of this work with her trifecta of gleaming blades: momentous storytelling, brilliant image-making, and enormous emotional power:
Whatever dark river or lightning strike or bad choice or accident made and undid her, whether or not she was the author of her own tale, whether it was a story terrifying, melancholy, dull, or full of delight, danger abuse, and of losses few or innumerable, the woman who had crawled out of Orphan Mountain and, unbeknownst, into Trey Handel’s house, did not belong to those forces now. She was secreted in another kind of story, high as a tower, where through the roof of a glass room she watched the clock of the world pass over her—tart, persimmon yellow equinoctial sun, unbuttoned blouses of cloud, cerulean byways, star clots, the constellations in their leg irons, the moon in its guises, mysterious silks of the galaxies...
Particularly emblematic of the book is the holiness of what has been abandoned, such as the property called “Paradise Close” itself: a dilapidated mansion slowly being reclaimed by snow and the woods surrounding it. Spaar also depicts the abandonment of less concrete subjects: the razor-tinseled kingdom of rebellious youth that we must disregard outwardly with age but that lives within each of us into adulthood; unspoken love relinquished to the pulling currents of time; the parts of ourselves we left behind which, upon return, we find trellised with vines, haunted by vaporous shapes whom we barely remember, or vividly, burningly do.
Spaar’s commanding voice reminds us that beauty is not only something exterior and observable but is also an obsessive gaze, a practiced lens, and a way of beholding. Only an absolute beauty junky like Spaar could see the refrigerator’s light as a “glacial, neon, glow” or an ordinary road as a “moonless hairpin.” Spaar’s lush vision transports us out of the world we know into something with all the possibility and monstrousness of myth. Paradise Close’s narration, willfully full of wonder, reimagines chandeliers as the “ice-gilt” root systems of frozen trees, reveals an analog clock to be “a numeral-scarred moon-face,” enhances a woman’s collarbones to two sterling keys. In Paradise Close’s world of thinning veils, starlings fly up from the caverns of deep memory, through an ephemeral wind, and past our present, physical bodies.
This is a book you will want to read multiple times. Each time I retraced Paradise Lost’s ornate, winding plot and bioluminescent character portraits, I found something I’d missed previously in the hallucinogenic weave of its design—new moments of allegorical splendor, new spider threads of attachment between characters, new tricks of light in each scene refracting forward or backward in time. In “Dorothy Wordsworth’s Insomnia,” a poem from her 2004 collection Blue Venus (2004), Spaar wrote, “Even the Paradise of his unexpected tread upon the stone / and the familiar motion of my heart imperfectly / rebuilding itself in that moment.” In Paradise Close, Spaar returns to the idea that heaven and haven, even more than existing materially, can be found in our love for one another.
Paradise Close’s light-trammeled pages recall a difficult but freeing truth from an earlier poem, “New Year’s Eve,” where Spaar wrote of the “splendor of hope’s risk.” Allowing oneself to be both touched by beauty and vulnerable to love’s tenderness is an agreement to be broken by them as well.
Part Beauty and the Beast, part monk meditation, part pulse-galloping thriller, part Salingeresque coming-of-age with an untamable femme lead, part intoxicated art school sex party, part goldenrod glow the morning after a storm—this novel illuminates how we can rescue others by allowing our own rescue.
AIMEE SEU is the author of Velvet Hounds, winner of the 2020 Akron Poetry Prize. She graduated from the University of Virginia Creative Writing MFA Poetry Program in 2020. She was the recipient of the 2019 and 2016 Academy of American Poetry Prize at UVA and Temple University. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in Poets, Ninth Letter, Pleiades, BOAAT, Redivider, Raleigh Review, Diode, Leavings, and Minnesota Review. Her current project is a collection of nonfiction vignettes.
LISA RUSS SPAAR received a BA from the University of Virginia in 1978 and an MFA in 1982. She is the author of several books, including Paradise Close: A Novel (Persea Books, 2022), Madrigalia: New and Selected Poems (Persea Books, 2021), Orexia (Persea Books, 2017), Vanitas, Rough (Persea Books, 2012), and Glass Town (Red Hen Press, 1999). Spaar has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Library of Virginia Award for Poetry, and a Rona Jaffe Award, among other honors and awards. She is a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia.