Parkhurst, Carolyn 1971–
Parkhurst, Carolyn 1971–
PERSONAL: Born 1971; married; children: one son. Education: American University, M.F.A. (creative writing). Hobbies and other interests: Collecting masks, traveling, cooking.
ADDRESSES: Home—Washington, DC. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Warner Books, Inc., 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
CAREER: Writer. National Endowment for the Arts, summer internship.
The Dogs of Babel (novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2003.
ADAPTATIONS: The Dogs of Babel was adapted as an audiobook read by Erik Singer, Time Warner Audio-Books, 2003.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A second novel, short stories.
SIDELIGHTS: American writer Carolyn Parkhurst has won acclaim for her first novel, The Dogs of Babel, in which grieving widower and linguistics professor Paul Iverson attempts to teach his dog, Lorelei, to talk in hopes of learning whether his wife, Lexy's, death, in a fall from a backyard apple tree, was accident or suicide. As Paul researches the possibility that dogs can acquire language and attempts to teach Lorelei to use a typewriter, he mourns Lexy and recalls the tenderness of their all-too-short romance and marriage. Meeting with little success in getting a word from Lorelei, he finally turns to a gruesome criminal who once conducted facial and palate surgery on dogs to give them an ability to form words. He also meets with the Cerberus Society, which has a similar mission. In the end, he learns that some things should never be done and comes to terms with Lexy's memory.
The mysterious Lexy, a maker of festive papier-mâché masks, lover of the mystical, and childlike in her attraction to Disneyland and puzzles, is based loosely on the author herself, a collector of masks and lover of puzzles. Parkhurst said in an online interview with Matt Borondy for Identity Theory that both of her characters' feelings about having children were also inspired by her own feelings; she was pregnant with her son while writing the novel and gave birth to him just after midnight on the day she finished it. "When Paul fantasizes about setting his baby down on a blanket on the grass or pushing her through the neighborhood in a carriage, those images reflect the great excitement I felt about having a child of my own," she told Borondy. "And when Lexy wonders if she's cut out to be a mother, that reflects the kind of fears I had about becoming a parent."
Parkhurst was also inspired by her dog Chelsea, which died while she was writing the book. "I think that the experience of living with such a sweet dog is probably what made me want to write about dogs in the first place," she told Borondy. "He helped me with my research, too. When Paul was doing intelligence tests with Lorelei, I did the same thing with Chelsea, and it gave me some interesting material." Parkhurst also did research on service dogs and on the intelligence they show in sensing when an owner is ill or on the verge of, for example, having a heart attack or an epileptic seizure.
Parkhurst's story received a lot of attention from reviewers for a first novel. A People contributor praised the author, saying she "illuminates the emotional landscape that faces a surviving spouse who is trying to decide how much of life is about the past and how much is about the future." A Kirkus Reviews contributor, however, found it "a simple love story without the gumption to go in more unsettling directions" and thought the "compelling idea" weakened by "anticlimactic detail." Lev Grossman, in a review for Time, deemed it "a neatly, almost perfectly constructed novel," but said it "feels smaller than life" and lacks "raw, sobbing rage."
A New Yorker contributor cited the mysticism as overdone and Paul's experiments with Lorelei rushed, resulting in the book's "developing neither verisimilitude nor artful absurdity." A Publishers Weekly contributor found the novel's execution flawed and concluded: "Parkhurst is a fluid stylist, and there are memorable moments here, as well as some terrific characters …, but one get the sense of an author trying to stuff every notion she's ever had into her first book, with less than splendid results." Beth Kephart, in Book, wrote that The Dogs of Babel "has love, it has grief, it has mourning, it has forgiveness, but it also has a preponderance of flaws…. What rescues this book, from time to time, is the lyrical quality of the prose."
Barbara Hoffert, in Library Journal, wrote that "Parkhurst delivers a remarkable debut in quiet, authoritative prose." Viva Hardigg, in Entertainment Weekly, observed: "Parkhurst tells her tale with considerable skill. She can slice and dice a character in a couple of well-chosen strokes." However, Hardigg noted that Parkhurst's dialog sometimes gives way to cliché. In conclusion, though, she maintained that the author "packs a serious literary arsenal" in her prose and called The Dogs of Babel "a humanistic parable of the heart's confusions."
In an interview for Barnes & Noble.com, Parkhurst said she wrote her first story at age three. Some of the authors who have influenced and inspired her are Toni Morrison, Kazuo Ishiguro, Virginia Woolf, Michael Chabon, Robert Olen Butler, Margaret Atwood, and Patrick McGrath.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, January-February, 2003, David Bowman, "The New Virginia Woolf: Carolyn Parkhurst," p. 47; May-June, 2003, Beth Kephart, "Animal Magnetism" (review of The Dogs of Babel), p. 74.
Entertainment Weekly, June 13, 2003, Viva Hardigg, "Top of the Pups: A Widower Tries to Teach His Canine to Talk in Carolyn Parkhurst's Moving The Dogs of Babel," p. 98.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2003, review of The Dogs of Babel, p. 502.
Library Journal, March 15, 2003, Barbara Hoffert, review of The Dogs of Babel, p. 116.
New Yorker, June 16, 2003, review of The Dogs of Babel, p. 197.
People, June 16, 2003, review of The Dogs of Babel, p. 53.
Publishers Weekly, March 17, 2003, review of The Dogs of Babel, p. 50.
Time, June 16, 2003, Lev Grossman, "They Called It Puppy Love," p. 68.
Barnes & Noble.com, http://www.barnesandnoble.com/ (October 3, 2003), "Meet the Writers: Carolyn Parkhurst."
Identity Theory, http://www.identitytheory.com/ (May 29, 2003), Matt Borondy, "Interview: Carolyn Parkhurst."