McGowan, Heather 1969(?)-
McGowan, Heather 1969(?)-
Born c. 1969. Education: Brown University, M.A.
Director's Award, Sundance Film Festival.
The Return of Smith (play), first produced in New York, NY, at the Lincoln Center, 1997.
Schooling (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 2001.
(With Niels Mueller) Tadpole (screenplay), Miramax, 2002.
Duchess of Nothing (novel), Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2006.
Having written for the stage, film, and print media, Heather McGowan is known for her challenging writing style and fresh characters. Especially when it comes to her novels, critics have found her a perplexing stylist who reminds some of James Joyce. Her debut work of fiction, Schooling, is essentially the story of an American teenage girl named Catrine adjusting to life in an English boarding school. She feels alienated from the other students and becomes attracted to her chemistry teacher. McGowan makes this unremarkable plot unique, however, by using no punctuation and shifting between dialogue and internal thought and points of view, so that the story can be difficult for many readers to follow. "Textual experiments abound," related Adriana Leshko in a Harper's Bazaar review. "But all these stylistic pyrotechnics," she continued, "enhance rather than detract from" the author's efforts to explore Catrine's state of mind.
A number of reviewers were highly impressed by the skill of McGowan's pen. For instance, a Publishers Weekly contributor called the "beautifully written" novel "at once lush and harsh, and inventive in form." John Green, writing in Booklist, compared the author to David Foster Wallace, calling the debut "refreshingly inventive and successful"; however, he felt that the "eccentric prose does occasionally seem ostentatious." New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani had a harsher opinion, calling McGowan's prose "too labored, too self-conscious," and adding that it "threatens to topple over from the weight of contrivance and pretension." Nevertheless, she concluded that McGowan is an "enormously gifted" talent whose work is "fierce but imperfect." Asserting that Schooling is only for "sophisticated and patient readers," Marta Salij compared it to James Joyce's Ulysses, and recommended the work in her Detroit Free Press review. She called it "stunningly beautiful, earnest and aching and astonishing and sad, and readers willing to do a little work may find it the most haunting novel of this year."
Duchess of Nothing is in many ways just as difficult a novel as Schooling, though for different reasons. Whereas Schooling is primarily a challenge because of the writing style, McGowan's sophomore effort features a perplexing main character. The unnamed woman at the center of the novel has left her marriage to follow her lover, Edmund, to Rome. Her main attraction to Edmund, it seems, is his handsome back. Living with Edmund, she takes care of his half-brother, who is only seven years old. Edmund is mostly absent from the book while he works, and the woman decides she must educate his brother on her own and refuses to let him attend school. Her bizarre lessons in life, which seem to be mostly senseless, self-absorbed ruminations, form the center of the book. The boy puts up with her, nevertheless, and remains with her even after Edmund abandons them. In many ways, the boy helps to moderate the woman's unusual, even selfdestructive behavior. "The tricky narrative … swings continually between bitchy repartee and searching probes into the hollow core of a destroyed soul," explained a Kirkus Reviews writer. Ligaya Mishan, who admitted in a New York Times Book Review article on Duchess of Nothing that she could not finish McGowan's debut, found her second book "unrepentantly difficult." Although the critic felt the vague setting of the story, which refrains from descriptions of Rome or even to reveal what year the story takes place, weakens the work, Mishan appreciated how McGowan has "learned to reveal her narrator's character slowly, with delicacy and precision." There is not a great deal of plot here, and so the novel "relies entirely on the power of its voice." Salij, writing again in the Detroit Free Press, declared McGowan "a stylist with few peers."
In her debut screenplay, Tadpole, which she wrote with Niels Mueller, McGowan created what many film critics considered a smart sex comedy. The film, which won a director's award at the Sundance Film Festival, is about a fifteen-year-old boy named Oscar (nicknamed Tadpole), who is preternaturally intelligent, though not snobbish about his abilities. He is also far ahead of his peers when it comes to his sexual interests, and has designs on his forty-something stepmother, Eve. After Oscar is lured into a sexual flirtation with Eve's chiropractor friend, Diane, the movie has its comedic climax at a dinner attended by Oscar, Eve, Diane, and Eve's clueless professor husband, Stanley. The low-budget film was originally shot on videotape, which was the main cause for complaint by critics, who loved everything else about it, including the writing and directing. "Tadpole is a scrumptious amusement, one of the most satisfyingly cerebral and touching movies ever to play at the Sundance Film Festival," declared Duane Byrge in the Hollywood Reporter. Film Journal International critic Erica Abeel described it as a "small gem of a film," adding that Oscar is "a delightful, fresh character with few prior models I can think of."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, July, 2001, Chris Barsanti, review of Schooling, p. 73.
Booklist, May 15, 2001, John Green, review of Schooling, p. 1734; March 1, 2006, Debi Lewis, review of Duchess of Nothing, p. 66.
Daily Variety, January 14, 2002, Todd McCarthy, review of Tadpole, p. 4.
Detroit Free Press, June 29, 2001, Marta Salij, review of Schooling; May 3, 2006, Marta Salij, review of Duchess of Nothing.
Entertainment Weekly, July 13, 2001, Troy Patterson, review of Schooling, p. 78; July 26, 2002, Lisa Schwarzbaum, "I Want My Mama: In the Charming Comedy Tadpole, a Teen's Crush on His Stepmom Leads Him into an Affair with Her Best Friend," p. 44.
Film Journal International, July, 2002, Erica Abeel, review of Tadpole, p. 54.
Harper's Bazaar, June, 2001, Adriana Leshko, review of Schooling, p. 114.
Hollywood Reporter, January 17, 2002, Duane Byrge, review of Tadpole, p. 12.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2006, review of Duchess of Nothing, p. 57.
Kliatt, November, 2002, Debra Mitts Smith, review of Schooling, p. 20.
Library Journal, May 1, 2001, Rebecca Stuhr, review of Schooling, p. 127.
Newsweek, June 18, 2001, Jeff Giles, "You Need Some Schooling: A Bold, Moving Debut Novel about a Girl Interrupted," p. 56.
New York Times, July 6, 2001, Michiko Kakutani, "A Girl with Too Much to Say to Worry about Punctuation," review of Schooling, p. E38; July 19, 2002, Stephen Holden, "Film Review: Developing a Complicated Taste for (Older) Women," review of Tadpole.
New York Times Book Review, June 24, 2001, Eric Weinberger, "School Daze," review of Schooling, p. 30; April 16, 2006, Ligaya Mishan, "Poppins Meets Plath," review of Duchess of Nothing.
Publishers Weekly, May 14, 2001, review of Schooling, p. 51; February 6, 2006, review of Duchess of Nothing, p. 45; February 27, 2006, Michael Scharf, "An Unsentimental Education: The Author of Schooling Returns with Further Instruction," p. 32.
Variety, January 21, 2002, Todd McCarthy, review of Tadpole, p. 33.
Washington Post Book World, July 8, 2001, Linda Barrett Osborne, review of Schooling, p. 31.