I first heard the term “cosmic” in a lecture about J.M.W. Turner’s art, referring to the painter’s depiction of humanity against the backdrop of a universe by turns awe-inspiring and savage and demonstrated by his placement of tiny, detailed figures in paintings of impressive clashes of sea and storm. According to this definition, Julianna Baggott is also such an artist, and Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders, her most cosmic novel, is a tale of loss, longing, and love that unfurls powerfully amidst 20th-century storms, often more man-made than natural.
Harriet and her daughter, Eleanor, and granddaughters, Ruth and Tilton, are the central figures Baggott trains her magnifying glass on, in sections told by each, in this modern family saga. Still it is Harriet who grows larger than life in her own story and in those of her female descendants―Harriet who defeats death and patriarchal denial, Harriet who finds love and loses it over and over, and Harriet who makes sense of the world first through newspaper clippings and then by creating her own universe in a series of novels that make her famous.
Other reviews have mentioned a Gatsby-esque quality to Wonders, citing certain Roaring Twenties-style parties and a gangster figure not unlike Meyer Wolfsheim. I recognized these as well, but the similarities and satisfactions of Baggott’s novel go deeper than that. At times, Wonders offered a parallel story of lifelong love and loss that was grittier, more nuanced, more carnal, and, to this reader, perhaps more moving, or at least, moving in a different way. Harriet and Eppitt Clapp find each other as castoffs in the “Maryland Home for Feeble Minded Children,” which is based on a real place outside of Baltimore, according to Baggott. Their meeting launches a love story that owes as much to the material world of blood and steam―Harriet has a platelet disorder and a reputation as a “bleeder,” and the two work together in the Home’s laundry―as Daisy and Gatsby’s does to the ethereal world of silk shirts and frosted wedding cake ceilings.
Baggott is even more of a maximalist, it seems, than F. Scott Fitzgerald, however, and this book fairly teems with life, from the “butterflies, toads, moles, various insects in boxes. . . and glass jars with perforated lids” Harriett collects as a child to the lion she escorts in her motorcycle jumpseat and the mongrel heart that she visits at the Isley Wesler Museum of Antiquities. Here, for example, is a scene between Eppitt and Harriett getting ready for a grand party hosted by Eppitt’s shady boss, Isley Wesler.
“I can’t wear lipstick,” I called to Eppitt. “My face rejects it.”
“Come out here,” he said. He took the tube from me and said, “Make your lips taut.” In a few deft movements―two for my upper lip, from the arches out, and one for the bottom lip―he drew an artful bow. “Rub your lips together.”
And I did.
He held up a piece of tissue paper. “Blot.”
I blotted. “How do you know how to do this?” I asked.
“I’ve watched.” Eppitt had never married, but he knew women. He had a past. I decided not to ask about it. The main thing is that I remember this moment vividly because this is how we were together. We took care of each other in small, tender ways. We were never simply lovers. We filled all the roles for each other―mother, father, brother, sister, each the other’s tender and tended.
Harriet’s daughter and granddaughters make their way in a just as harrowing late 20th-century world, a matrilineal landscape by design and default, where planes crash and people fall out of the sky to break up families, and the longing for a lost father seems to grow exponentially from one generation to the next. A scene at a seaside restaurant near the end of the novel, aptly narrated by the otherworldly Tilton, in which she and Ruth meet their father for the first time in decades is probably the most understated, poignant, and generous version of such a scene as I have ever read.
Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders is a book of secrets, the eponymous one being what happened to the seventh book Wolf scholars are so certain she wrote. Baggott, who is the author of more than 20 books under her own name and two pseudonyms (Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode), calls this her “secret literary novel,” one that took her 19 years to write while she also worked on her New York Times notable YA series Pure, along with several others. This is a rather astonishing accomplishment when one considers that other authors spend similar lengths of time working on just one or two important books, but that is how Baggott writes, admitting, in a Kirkus Reviews interview recently that she necessarily works on several projects at once, realizing that “it’s easier to let my horses just run and gallop than to rein them in.”
Readers are fortunate that Baggott’s gifts run both wide and deep, her imagination unfettered by gendered notions of genre or self-imposed limits on form. Unsurprisingly, she is also an accomplished poet, essayist, and screenwriter. Closing the final pages of Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders, with many of the novel’s secrets satisfyingly revealed, one hopes that Baggott’s next literary novel might not be quite so long in coming or so clandestine, advancing a critical reputation re-established by this stunning book and worthy of her cosmic gifts.