Wiggins, Marianne

views updated

WIGGINS, Marianne

Born 8 November 1947, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Daughter of John and Mary Klonis Wiggins; married Brian Porzak, 1965 (divorced 1970); Salman Rushdie, 1988 (divorced 1993); children: Lara

Novelist and short story writer Marianne Wiggins grew up in the Amish region of eastern Pennsylvania. Her father was a farmer and preacher and her mother was the daughter of Greek immigrants who had settled in Virginia. Wiggins' childhood was shaped both by the fundamentalist Christianity of her father and the ritual-filled Greek Orthodoxy of her mother as well as by the neighboring Amish community's endeavor to create an ideal religious society. These contentious influences permeate Wiggins' fictional themes in which she examines and dissects the tenacious yet mutable hold of religious mythology, romanticism, patriarchy, colonialism, and violence upon her characters' lives.

Married young and with a daughter who was born in Rome in 1968, Wiggins lived in Paris, Brussels, New York, and Massachusetts before settling in London, where she has resided since 1985. While a single mother, she supported herself with work in a stockbroker's office before the proceeds from her first novel, the semiautobiographical Babe (1975), enabled her to pursue a full-time career in writing. Her early work focuses in often comic fashion on the travails of young mothers attempting to make their way in the world despite loutish men and the conventions of traditional expectations for women.

Wiggins' third novel, Separate Checks (1984), features a matriarchal family full of eccentric overachievers and wild women characters as seen through the eyes of one of their daughters, Ellery McQueen. Ellery is composing her own version of the life histories of her female relatives, which serves as the framing device for the narrative. Through storytelling, Ellery is attempting to understand her own troubled inheritance of that ineffable mixture of emotions passed on from mothers to daughters. While the satirical language of the novel is uneven, shifting, as one reviewer noted, "between the dazzling and the contrived," Wiggins largely succeeds in creating a portrait of the complicated, intimate, and not always welcome ties that bind this family of women.

In a collection of short stories, Herself in Love (1987), Wiggins turns an edgy eye upon the vagaries of romantic love and posits a nearly inevitable outcome of estrangement between women and men. Her characters suffer from odd disconnections, poignant regrets, and uneasy exile. There is an idiosyncratic range of content in these stories in which Wiggins demonstrates her ability to experiment with style and language, while still maintaining an attentive ear for the subtle nuances of dialect, locale, and period that so individuate her characters.

In her critically acclaimed novel John Dollar (1989), Wiggins successfully weaves together recurring themes from her earlier work into a caustic satire on the conceits of Christianity, imperialism, and the too easy descent of civilized society into barbarism. The book tells the story of Charlotte Lewes, a World War I widow, who accepts a position in Burma teaching the children of the smugly superior British colonialists living there at the height of the Raj. Once in Rangoon, Charlotte falls in love with sailor John Dollar and begins to shed the constraints of her English compatriots while adopting the customs of the Burmese. On an outing to name an island in honor of their king, the British colonialists are beset by catastrophes, perhaps brought on by their own brutality, leaving a paralyzed John Dollar and eight schoolgirls as the stranded survivors. In language alternately disturbing and lyrical, Wiggins depicts the relentless moral disintegration of the girls' social order. Forming a rigid hierarchy in a doomed attempt to survive, the girls instead devolve from petty bullying into ritualistic cannibalism, fated to recreate a nightmarish version of what they've seen modeled by their elders. With John Dollar, Wiggins is unsparing in her scathing critique of the myths of empire and of Christian sacrifice.

At the time of John Dollar 's publication, Wiggins was married to author Salman Rushdie. Their life together was severely disrupted by the death threat placed on Rushdie by Islamic zealots in response to the perceived blasphemy of his book The Satanic Verses. Wiggins and Rushdie were forced to live in hiding for a period of time and they subsequently separated and divorced. With respect to this episode, Wiggins has commented ironically on her obligation as a writer to point out the historical parallels with other eras in which religious doubters have been sentenced to death for voicing their skepticism.

In Almost Heaven (1998), Wiggins depicts a foreign correspondent, damaged by having witnessed too much violence in the Balkans, who returns to America, only to fall in love with a woman suffering from traumatic amnesia. The novel functions as an interrogation of the role of memory in human affairs and takes as its central metaphor the capricious nature of weather. However, Almost Heaven is less than satisfying due to its melodramatic prose and unwieldy plotting, which transpire at the expense of plausibility and depth of character development.

Throughout her novels and stories to date, Wiggins has established herself as an author willing to grapple with substantive ideas and with the darker cultural and political forces against which her characters enact their dreams and fears. At times her work is marred by overly clever wordplay, but more typically Wiggins infuses her writing with keen intelligence, a jaded vigilance toward hypocrisy, and the passionately acerbic sensibility of an expatriate. The recipient of a Whiting award, a National Education Association grant, and the Janet Heidinger Kafka fiction prize, Wiggins' next project is a novel about the American Revolution.

Other Works:

Went South (1980) Bet They'll Miss Us When We're Gone (1991). Eveless Eden (1995).


Reference works:

ANR 60 (1998). CA 130 (1990). CLC 57 (1990).

Other references:

Booklist (1 Oct. 1995). LATBR (1 Apr. 1984). MacClean's (21 Aug. 1989). NYT (16 Feb. 1989, 4 Apr. 1990, 9 Apr. 1991). NYTBR (19 Feb. 1989, 15 Oct. 1995, 20 Sept. 1998). PW (17 Feb. 1989). Salon (17 Sept. 1998). San Francisco Bay Guardian (25 Nov. 1998). WSJ (19 July 1991). WPBW (6 Sept. 1998). Writer's Digest (Feb. 1991).