The Whole World Over
“The birds’ migration routes crisscrossed the map like a craze of telephone wires, swooping gracefully from one coast to another. The seemed almost to secure the world, all these well-traveled paths in the sky, the way ribbon or twine secures a precious gift.”
It’s fitting that I bought my copy of The Whole World Over on what amounted to a mini tour of the United States. My fiancé is in the process of interviewing for medical residency programs, and over the Christmas holiday I was lucky enough to be able to accompany him to some of them. On a lovely wander about Tucson, AZ, I picked up this novel, and it became my constant companion through flights to Madison, WI, New York City, and back home to Portland, OR. Even though, at over 500 pages, it’s by no means a short book, I was sad to see it, and my trip, come to an end.
The novel starts out in the consciousness of baker, mother, and wife Greenie Duquette, who is in some sense the main but by no means the only character. Other chapters allow us into the psyches of Alan, Greenie’s husband, Walter, her friend, and Saga, a young woman with whom Alan builds an unlikely friendship. Amidst the many other appealing personalities populating the novel is the reticent but loveable Fenno McLeod from Glass’s equally excellent first novel, Three Junes. Greenie’s departure from New York City to New Mexico after taking a job as head cook in the governor’s mansion is the event that sets the book in motion, and while the differences between these two worlds are interesting in their own right, what’s really at stake here are the relationships between the characters and, in turn, their relationships with themselves.
The ultimate pleasure of reading Glass’s novels lies in their richness of detail and the almost magical way she’s able to connect what seem like a million moving parts. The book Greenie reads to her son becomes the name of their dog, who Alan gets from Saga, who meets Walter at an important moment after becoming friends with Fenno… it sounds convoluted, but in Glass’s expert hands the interactions feel completely natural, an accurate depiction of the way things tie together in real life, the whole world over, as they do in the image of migratory bird routes on display in Fenno’s bookstore.
In addition to exploring the haphazard but important ways we come to know each other, the novel is interested in how we come to know ourselves. Glass’s prose insists that this knowing cannot be separated from our knowledge of others, but the book also questions whether such influences can be detrimentally misleading or confusing. How can you know if what you feel is true? How can you know if you would be the same person you are now if you had not met the people you did? The answers to these questions have consequences, of course, not just for our own self-knowledge, but for how we’re able to maintain and benefit from our relationships with others. Love relationships (hetero and homosexual) are the primary focus here, but family bonds and varying degrees of friendship also get a good amount of stage time.
The Whole World Over is staunchly realistic in the very best sense of the term: it emphasizes characterization and gives us a great deal of knowledge on both the internal and external forces motivating the characters’ thoughts and actions. The fact that Glass follows not just one, but four characters, adds greater depth to this effect. What’s particularly charming about the book is that though it portrays many unhappy scenarios, the overarching mood of is one of optimism and a belief that even though we are all coming and going, lost in our own internal hells of confusion and uncertainty, connection abounds. We are not alone and isolated at all, but attached to one another in ways we notice every day and in ways only a talented novelist can help us glimpse, and appreciate.