In honor of #ReadingRhys week, here’s a little story about my history and relationship with Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight:
In the very late 90’s, the year after I graduated from college and moved to Boston with my boyfriend to work in an office and be a grown up, I met a woman in a completely sketchy dive while visiting friends in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She was a window display designer, like my childhood idol Rhoda Morganstern from the Mary Taylor Moore Show and, later, Rhoda, and had a similar New York accent as well as perfect posture and a tiny silver statue of a ballerina that she wore around her neck and used as a very fancy coke spoon. My friends and I went back to her apartment for a party. She and I sat close together on a saggy couch and talked about everything and nothing. I felt sparkly, noticed, special, understood. As I was FINALLY leaving, the sun was coming up and my new friend gave me Good Morning, Midnight, by Jean Rhys, and told me that it was one of her favorites and she just knew that I would really get it. It’s about a woman named Sasha who has hit absolute rock bottom and travels from London to wander around her former home, Paris, “the city of both her happiest moments and her most desperate” in a drunken, penniless haze until she gets picked up by a gigolo who thinks she’s rich because she has a nice coat. She is nearly crippled by social anxiety at all times, and keeps a stream-of-consciousness inner monologue going throughout with lines like “Please, please, monsieur et madame, mister, missis and miss, I am trying so hard to be like you. I know I don’t succeed, but look how hard I try” and “My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafes where they like me and cafes where they don’t…rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I never shall me…and so on.”
I fell in love with the book; I was a little unnerved that a stranger with whom I had an instant, albeit fleeting and artificially enhanced, connection had decided that I would “really get” this book, but I was also weirdly flattered. I was just beginning my adult life, and apparently I was giving off some sort of vibe that I would relate to a book all about a woman who has A Past, a sordid, scandalous, shabbily glamorous past at that. I was drawn in by Jean Rhys’s writing; it mesmerized and soothed me in spite of Sasha’s social anxiety, in part because I suffer from social anxiety myself. Good Morning, Midnight was probably the my first experience with a book that spent so much time and detail discussing what it’s like to live with this kind of anxiety, and between that and the fact that a beautiful, interesting stranger had given me the book because she thought I’d like it, it made me feel the same way as our all-night couch conversation: sparkly, noticed, special, understood. Eighteen years later, I still love the book and reread it regularly. I am probably now the same age as Sasha, which is an odd milestone. I still deal with social anxiety, but I don’t have Sasha’s self-destructive bent or an ongoing, elegant but deadly self-loathing monologue running through my mind, thank goodness. I never talked to the woman who gave me the book again. I wonder how she’s doing.