McPhee, Martha 1964–
McPhee, Martha 1964–
(Martha A. McPhee)
PERSONAL: Born June 25, 1964, in New York, NY; daughter of John McPhee (a writer for New Yorker) and Pryde Brown (a portrait photographer); married Mark Svenvold (a poet and writer); children: one daughter. Education: Bowdoin College, B.A., 1987; Columbia University, M.F.A., 1994. Hobbies and other interests: Reading, cooking.
CAREER: Novelist and translator. Teacher at Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY.
AWARDS, HONORS: New York Times Notable Book Award, for Bright Angel Time; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1998, for work on Gorgeous Lies; National Book Award finalist, 2002, for Gorgeous Lies; Guggenheim fellowship, 2003.
(Translator with sister, Jenny McPhee) His Holiness John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, edited by Vittorio Messori, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
Bright Angel Time (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1997.
(With sisters, Jenny McPhee and Laura McPhee) Girls: Ordinary Girls and Their Extraordinary Pursuits, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
Gorgeous Lies (novel), Harcourt (New York, NY), 2002.
L'America, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2006.
Contributor of short fiction to the New Yorker, Zoetrope, Redbook, and Open City. Contributor of nonfiction to numerous publications, including the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, Interview, and Real Simple.
SIDELIGHTS: Entering the writing world as the daughter of an eminent author, New Yorker contributor John McPhee, Martha McPhee had "a lot to prove," as reviewer Sam Sifton observed in Salon.com. Sifton and other critics declared that she proved it sufficiently in Bright Angel Time, her debut novel. Readers and critics were captured by the story prior to its publication because chapters were serialized in the New Yorker. The book, set in 1970, is written as the retrospective first-person narrative of eight-year-old Kate who, with her two older sisters, lived in a conventional, organized, structured, suburban family environment. Then her father left for another woman and her mother, Eve, took up with free-spirited Anton, a Gestalt therapist, former professional gambler, and former Jesuit priest. Anton took Kate's family, along with his five children, on what Grace Fill writing in Booklist called a "freewheeling trek across the West" in a turquoise camper. McPhee depicts Kate's difficulty with her new lifestyle, in which Anton encouraged the kids to be as free-spirited as he was. While the trip encompassed magnificent landscapes, national monuments, and the Grand Canyon—a place Kate had longed to visit and where she sees the Bright Angel shale—it exposed Kate to sex, drugs, alcohol, and parental irresponsibility. She balanced her unease in this environment with treasured memories of her geologist father. The novel provides ample scenery—landscapes, resorts, motels, and roads—and emotional drama in the relationships developed between characters. By the end, Eve has been struck in the face by Anton, but stays with him anyway, and narrator Kate has returned to her New Jersey home.
Sifton found Bright Angel Time "a carefully wrought and intelligent novel—and a pre-adolescent, feminine road novel at that," which "describes with painful, loving detail how the sins of the grownups can be bitterly visited upon the children." He called the depiction of counter-culture America "richly textured," and surmised that it might be cathartically painful reading for those who were Eve's and Anton's age. Only the ending, he noted, was a bit unconvincing. Also enthusiastic was a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who called attention to McPhee's "plangent, affecting voice and powerful writing." For that critic, the novel was "impressive," the story "absorbing," the events enlivened by McPhee's "vivid, almost tactile sense of setting." The morally judgmental aspect of the novel's tone, according to the critic, might be too subtle for many readers to catch, but this technique was executed "with great skill." The young novelist "deftly renders the dynamic among the three sisters, the interplay of rivalry and trust." In the Library Journal, reviewer Caroline M. Hallsworth appreciated the fact that "McPhee cleverly hints at deeper tensions running through the surface of daily life." Hallsworth felt that the novel's geographical wanderings and abrupt ending weakened its structure; however, she believed that "all readers will find Kate an engaging character."
Jennifer Wolcott of the Christian Science Monitor, reviewing McPhee's collaborative effort with her two older sisters titled Girls: Ordinary Girls and their Extraordinary Pursuits, said the sisters were tired of hearing that American girls suffered from low self-esteem and lack of ambition. This became the impetus for the sisters to travel the country for a year, interviewing and collecting stories of more than eighty ordinary girls. "American girls are bursting with self-confidence," Wolcott commented. "That's just one of many encouraging discoveries made by Jenny, Martha and Laura McPhee…. What they found not only dispelled myths; it shattered them." The sisters talked to girls in all walks of life—sports, art, dance, chess, wrestling, acting, music, and stock trading, to name a few—discovering that they are confident and competent. McPhee also discovered that almost all the girls they talked to avoided the "feminist" label. "It's not a word in their lexicon," she says. "But I realized that's a good thing, because feminism opened up opportunities for them to such an extent that they don't even think about it."
In the novel Gorgeous Lies, the sequel to Bright Angel Time, McPhee revisits the blended Furey-Cooper family twenty years later. Anton lies dying of pancreatic cancer on the rambling farm he purchased to live out his utopian vision of communal living, a lifestyle that became the subject of a famous documentary. As the siblings gather, they must deal with grief, long-standing resentments, regret, and misunderstandings. Alice, the child Eve and Anton had together and what Starr E. Smith called in the Library Journal the "biological and symbolic link between the Fureys and Coopers," agonizes over how to end her father's suffering. Smith noted that this is a more somber novel than McPhee's earlier one, but is its "equal in subtlety and clever writing." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented that McPhee's "offbeat writing style and poetic metaphors distinguish this crowded tale" of an "anti-Brady Bunch." The reviewer also felt that it is Anton's "infectious zest for life that drives this invigorating if convoluted novel." Gorgeous Lies was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award.
In McPhee's 2006 novel, L'America, the author again focuses on the after-effects of the counter culture, this time taking her protagonist on a tour of Europe. Beth is eighteen and has been raised on a commune in Pennsylvania. When she is traveling in Europe, she meets Cesare, whose own upbringing in an old and noble Italian banking family has been the opposite of hers. Yet in this case, opposites attract, both representing missing and longed-for elements in the life of the other. In the end, however, their love does not carry them through nor bridge the gulf that exists between their two ways of life. A Publishers Weekly reviewer found that "McPhee's lush, erotically charged prose evokes their erotic obsession" in this "rapturous but socially acute fable of cross-class love." Beth E. Anderson, writing in the Library Journal, concluded that "McPhee draws the reader into the lives of this irresistibly spirited, intensely determined couple."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, June 1, 1997, Grace Fill, review of Bright Angel Time, p. 1661; September 1, 2002, review of Gorgeous Lies, p. 58.
Harper's Bazaar, October, 2000, Jean Hanff Korelitz, review of Girls: Ordinary Girls and Their Extraordinary Pursuits, p. 234.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1997, p. 408; June 15, 2002, review of Gorgeous Lies, p. 833; January 15, 2006, review of L'America, p. 57.
Library Journal, April 1, 1997, Caroline M. Hallsworth, review of Bright Angel Time, p. 128; August, 2000, Starr E. Smith, review of Gorgeous Lies, p. 143; February 1, 2006, Beth E. Anderson, review of L'America, p. 72.
Publishers Weekly, April 7, 1997, review of Bright Angel Time, p. 74; September 25, 2000, review of Girls, p. 107; July 22, 2002, review of Gorgeous Lies, p. 156; March 20, 2006, review of L'America, p. 38.
Barnes and Noble Web site, http://www.barnesandnoble.com/ (September 29, 2006), "Interview: Martha McPhee."
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (June 11, 1997), Sam Sifton, review of Bright Angel Time.