Amy’s Story by Anna Lawton sets a tempestuous romance against the turbulent half-century of global change that erupted in the 1960s and flowed across the land like a modern Great Flood. The novel plants the seeds of these decades in the post-World War One migration from Europe to the United States and reveals the newest fruits—poison to some, nectar to others—in the closing pages. The private romance and the public turmoil work together to create a story as much about love as it is about progress, about aspiration and success as about longing and loss.
A third conflict, the subtle struggle between the adventurous Amy and childhood friend Stella (with whom she shares a surprising connection) can be summed up in a line: ‘She tried to pull me back and make me think before jumping into action, although my instinct often prevailed.’
At every level the book addresses the question, ‘Where are you from?’ And the structure suggests there is no true answer without first understanding the history that brings you there.
The protagonist arrives in L.A. from Turin as the lover of a charming, if arrogant, Fulbright scholar. Jim is writing an industry-shattering book about Italian film’s influence on Hollywood, an anti-establishment work that will keep him struggling for years to win his place at the table. The pair struggle together; they’re a team; and their struggle occurs at a time when baby boomers around the world are struggling to upend the status quo.
We know the reasons: the war in Vietnam; political assassinations; craven and unstable American leadership; beats and hippies and drugs and music; the push for racial and gender equality. A trip to Mexico during these years reveals the nightmare women endured in the years before Roe v. Wade, a stunning description of the harrowing limits being pushed in the struggle to maintain control over a woman’s own body.
But as her mentor makes plain, not all protestors understand exactly what or why they protest. ‘These kids fill up their mouths with words such as Marxism, Communism, class struggle, revolution, but they don’t even know their true meaning. They lack historical knowledge, never went to the roots.’
The roots he refers to are the ideas from Europe that stitched themselves into the fabric of the American Constitution. And his lesson carries an eerie foretaste of the conformity and demagoguery that duped 46.1% of voting Americans last fall: ‘The ‘mass’… this is one of the favorite words in Marxist parlance because the mass can be easily manipulated. All you need is a charismatic leader, a simplistic doctrine, smart images on posters and banners, and…. A new dogma is born, an absolute truth, and all genuflect to it.’
Romantic turmoil aside the principal characters live charmed lives, connected to aristocratic wealth, Italy’s fine arts, New York’s publishing world, success in film and academic circles. The main struggle with Jim, outspoken and strong-willed, too intellectually righteous not to be his own worst enemy, leads to a split with him and a dull marriage to a bland college provost.
Flash forward through the 80s and 90s to post 9/11 New York and a passionate reunion with Amy’s old lover. Now grey and grand—he in film, she in literature—the two reflect on the flood that brought them here: ‘We have a president who’s not really been elected by the people, but selected by the Supreme Court. That was a political act that discredited one of our most sacred institutions. It put us on a slippery slope because when the institutions are discredited the nation collapses.’
The errant invasion of Iraq? ‘Yet, there’s no student revolt against this war like there was against the Vietnam War. The young seem to be rather indifferent.’ But the times—well, they’ve changed. For one, there’s no draft to drive home the nail of mortality, no conscription to join the 60,000 American war dead.
More to the truth, though, is that Amy’s Story comes to a close before the tax protests earlier this month; the Women’s March on Washington in January; the Black Lives Matter rallies through last summer. It ends before students at Berkeley, rightly or wrongly, shut down a speech by right-wing provocateur and disgraced Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos in February (and may do the same next week to rabid dog whistler of far right anger and self-righteousness Anne Coulter).
No, the spirit of protest is very much alive today. It is, perhaps, not as massively overpowering as in the 60s when the great deluge of Baby Boomers turned out as a great proportion of the population. After all, we’re dealing with the hard truth of demographics and it’s a different field from when Jim Morrison gave the world 5 to 1: ‘They’ve got the guns but we’ve got the numbers.’
As long as today’s protestors understand where the struggle was born, there’s hope of making a difference. It’s not enough to raise our fists against an undisciplined silver spoon president who came to power on a fascist ideology, who won with a stunning minority by pandering to ignorance, fear, and a facile propensity to blame others.
It’s more important to remember that the election itself presented America with a raft of extremely flawed candidates before whittling these incompetents down to the two most unpopular major party nominees the Republic has ever known.
Anna Lawton’s story will remind us of this.