Carol Gilligan steps into fiction
By CLEA SIMON  |  January 22, 2008

WALL JUMPER: As a psychologist and scholar, Gilligan broke down barriers, but her first novel doesn’t quite make it.

Kyra | By Carol Gilligan | Random House | 256 pages | $25
If ever a thinker stood for the idea of questioning authority, it was Carol Gilligan. The former Harvard professor and groundbreaking author of In a Different Voice (1982) redefined psychology in feminist terms. She broke down walls and reframed the discussion to be fairer, more accurate, and more relevant to contemporary lives.

That’s what the heroine of her first novel tries to do as well. In this slim but dense volume, Kyra is also an academic, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design who tries to demolish barriers while re-creating the idea of the city. Designing an ideal community on Nashawena, an uninhabited island off Martha’s Vineyard, she says, “I envisioned the settlement as a weave cast across the island . . . porous to the open spaces.”

But when the book opens, the walls seem to be winning. For starters, Kyra is very much aware of the difference between her girlhood and early married life in Cyprus, “where touching was commonplace,” and her current isolation as a widow in Puritan New England. She’s further constrained by the rigidity of academe, stuck in jargon-filled faculty meetings where “hegemonic” is “a four-syllable way of saying bad” and where she’s viewed as an oddity: “a conflict-free zone, an academic not seeking tenure, a woman not looking for commitment.” When this free-thinker meets a poetic Hungarian named Andreas, who’s in town to stage an untraditional Tosca, she seems to have found a soulmate. She joins him in re-envisioning the opera’s tragic ending; he sees the beauty of her island utopia. They fall in love and have transcendent sex (“I was holding my breath and then the smell of gardenias came into me”). But both are still bound by the invisible barriers of their tragic pasts, and by their own illusions, as well.

What happens between the two is predictable, but it does set the stage for the novel’s second half, which seems like the book’s true heart. Kyra reacts badly to what she perceives as a betrayal, and her reaction forces her into therapy. The same issues she faces at work and in love surface with her therapist, Greta. But with Greta, Kyra is finally able to see, if not always hurdle, those walls. Things come to a head when a colleague tells Kyra about a talk she heard Greta deliver, “When the Problem Comes into the Room: Turning Points in Psychotherapy with Women.” Kyra recognizes herself as the subject of the talk. Before long, the two are talking almost as equals — Kyra overcomes her resistance and Greta permits a redefinition of roles that reeks of pure fantasy, letting her client into her confidence and her heart.

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