cover image The English Understand Wool

The English Understand Wool

Helen DeWitt. New Directions, $17.95 trade paper (64p) ISBN 978-0-8112-3007-0

DeWitt (Some Trick) delivers an explosive rebuke to sensationalistic American publishing in this smart and multilayered story. The precocious 17-year-old narrator, Marguerite, hails from Marrakech, Morocco, where her French mother ensured the servants’ loyalty by paying their salaries through Ramadan plus two weeks additional leave, and who would travel to Scotland for the best tweeds, Ireland for linen, and London and Paris for tailoring. During a trip to Paris, her mother disappears. Marguerite’s choice to foreground details about her mother’s taste and discretion in a memoir she’s writing, for which she has earned a seven-figure advance, confounds her editor, Bethany, whose exploitative or at least tone-deaf feedback and Marguerite’s evenhanded responses alternate with Marguerite’s narration. Bethany wants more “feelings” about how she was “traumatized,” and suggests a ghostwriter; Marguerite replies that it’s “best for me to write what I know,” and their tension generates a thrilling sense of Marguerite’s defiance. The details around the scandal that sparked the book deal, following Marguerite’s mother’s disappearance, come out later, after the reader learns that Marguerite has traveled to New York City to write the book. A showdown with Marguerite and Bethany in a French restaurant is worth the price of admission alone. DeWitt is at the top of her game. (Aug.)