We were late. We had been told that our reservations could not be held past 7:00 pm. We arrived at 7:10 and thank goodness there was a table down front and directly to the podium’s left. Diamant was enjoying her dinner at the table next to us. She was seated in my line of vision and just cattycorner to L. We recognized her from her portrait on the book jacket. The Attic has a raised stage at one end that places the diners at the feet of the speaker. Tables clustered close to the stage and fans gathered at the bar to the rear of the room. Altogether the tiny place held about seventy guests. Intimate.
I ordered a martini, a classic one with vodka and olives. L. ordered a Blue Moon, one of the twenty beers they offer on tap. He ordered a seafood sampler for us to share: crab cakes, catfish and calamari. The drinks came just as a distinguished lady sat down behind me. She had eaten downstairs because she didn’t know that dinner was available stage side. She was Helen, a retired psychoanalyst. She had read Diamant's best seller The Red Tentand given it away for birthdays, Christmas gifts or any occasion at all. She was from the area, but had never been to one of Newtonville’s events. She came to see Diamant. We chatted. Right now she is reading a whole stack of anti-Bush books that her friends send her. She also has an anti-feminist book, just to see what they have to say. She leaned into me as we spoke and often put her hand on my arm and leaned her ear close to my mouth. She was an instant, if fleeting, bookish friend.
Diamant is a local and Newtonville is her local book shop. She extolled her audience to cherish local book stores as she does. Helen assumed that I was Jewish and started to discuss
the emergence of ritual bathing places for woman after they finish their menses that sprang up in the area after The Red Tent was published. Imagine that: fiction recovering history and then materializing into the present. You have to admire that. I asked Helen if I would be allowed to bath there, but she didn’t get a chance to answer.
I had purchased Diamant’s The Last Days of Dogtownlast week in Boston and finished it over the weekend. I had no idea that September 13th, the day of the reading, was actually the official publication date. Diamant told us that she was pleased to be “at home” to celebrate the event. She read the author’s note and shared the genesis of the novel. Eight years ago she came across a pamphlet about Dogtown (never the official name of the town) and slipped it into a file knowing that someday she wanted to write a novel about it. She then researched the history of the era—the clothes, language and food. She read a few passages that focused on the characters of Cornelius and Easter before she took questions.
Most of the audience had not yet had a chance to read the novel. Most of the questions were about her creative process. She was asked about her current reading and the authors she admires. She is reading now about Katrina and the aftermath as well as a British novel. She named among her favorite writers M.F.K Fisher. I did ask her to speak about the character Ruth. It turns out that Ruth was mentioned in the historical record, but that the narrative she created was pure fiction. The pamphlet about the historical town merely mentioned some of the people who were remembered to have been residents. She used these as seeds for her character studies.
Similar to The Red Tent, Diamant explores what it means to be on the outside of the main historical narrative. Her characters are pushed to the edge of acceptable society, yet they do not suffer there necessarily. Although set in early America, this is no Little House on the Prairie, where the characters struggle with right and wrong. In Dogtown the characters are already deemed wrong and therefore bad by the city folk. They are judged, but not condemned. They are able to join the ranks of the respectable if they choose.
After the reading the organizers asked us if they could use our table for the author to sign books. I would have been reticent to have her sign my book. I know too well my tendency to blubber. But being asked to move meant that we were automatically first in line. I asked an organizer if I could pilfer the poster announcing the event off the podium. An autographed poster would be perfect for my workstation or my classroom. Diamant thanked me for asking a question about the novel, one of the first she has gotten. I couldn’t help but tell her in as few words as possible that The Red Tent was our book club’s first selection and how it had galvanized our group and led to years of fruitful reading. Just a tiny bit of blubber, but sincere.
I clutched my signed poster and book as we left. We floated through a perfect end-of-summer night toward the little shops that line Newton’s centre. Ice-cream was on L.’s mind and I was happy to end the evening by sharing a rich concoction at the Stone Creamery.