In a literary coup, poet Debra Weinstein has written an infectious and delightful first novel, "Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z."
The book is about Annabelle Goldsmith, an aspiring poet, and Elizabeth Bovardine (aka "Z"), a famous poet/professor who becomes her mentor. Any graduate assistant who has hoped to be nurtured by a famous professor but ends up picking up her cleaning instead will understand the premise.
Although Annabelle practically worships Z and wants to be like her, Z blatantly ignores Annabelle's needs and exploits her precious time and ideas. Annabelle, to her credit, soaks up everything she can, hides her frustrations and works her heart out.
The author, whose witty writing is bound to make her famous one day, deals effectively with the relationship between younger women and older women and the curious questions of language and writing.
Z doesn't fall from her pedestal precipitously, but Annabelle gradually discovers that Z is only too human. Not only does Z treat Annabelle badly, but she cheats on her husband, treats her family shabbily and is secretly burned out as a poet. That's why she needs young students like Annabelle, who will give her fresh thoughts and phrases that can be stolen for her published poetry.
In the process of telling this lively story, Weinstein shares her insights about Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath and a host of other poets. Weinstein also writes the poetry produced by Z, Annabelle, her fellow students and other professor/poets. Each new poem reveals something of the personality of each character who writes it, and each is interesting enough to be published in its own right.
What Annabelle learns about poetry comes from a number of other sources, including Braun Brown, a younger, glamorous poet/professor whom Annabelle admires and Z hates.
She also learns from reading and conversations with fellow students including Harry Banks, a young man who is fixated on James Joyce and Joyce's wife, Nora. Weird Harry tries to imagine himself and Annabelle re-enacting the Joyces' lovemaking. Harry, too, exploits Annabelle by insisting she memorize portions of dialogue attributed to Nora, and by re-enacting Joyce and Nora scenes with Annabelle wearing gloves and heels. (This part is probably sexier than some readers prefer but it's also highly satirical.)
The most brilliant scene in the book depicts a weekend poetry workshop at Brown's home. Brown invites Gay Farinette, an aging poet who was once a mentor to Z, to guide the workshop. Farinette focuses the group on writing "confessional poetry," then challenges each member to write such a poem. Annabelle enthusiastically and quickly writes a nuanced confessional poem, exposing Z, her family and Brown. And she does it in a fascinating turn, using the alphabet and mathematical formulas.
Unfortunately, Brown and Farinette are both deeply offended by the poem, leaving Annabelle devastated; she only did it because her mentors insisted she be daring.It is Annabelle's destiny to be exploited by the sometimes wacky adults who surround her.
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