27 February 2020
What is the shape of a life? Is it the things that happen to us? Or is it the stories we tell about the things that happen to us?
From the coast of the Adriatic to the salt spray of Santa Barbara, the narrator of Topics of Conversation maps out her life through two decades of bad relationships, motherhood, crisis and consolation. The novel unfurls through a series of conversations – in private with friends, late at night at parties with acquaintances, with strangers in hotel rooms, in moments of revelation, shame, cynicism, envy and intimacy. Sizzling with enigmatic desire, Miranda Popkey’s debut novel is a seductive exploration of life as a woman in the modern world, of the stories we tell ourselves and of the things we reveal only to strangers.
‘Smart and raw’ Washington Post
‘Blisteringly current’ Esquire
‘Radically honest’ EW
‘Sally Rooney-esque’ New York Times
‘Brilliant, thoughtful and compelling’ Daily Mail
Follow @mmpopkey on Twitter
From the shore, the sea in three pieces like an abstract painting in gentle motion. Closest to the sand, liquid the pale green of a fertile lake. Then a swath of aquamarine, the color you imagine reading the word: aqua as in water, marine as in sea. Finally, a deep blue, the color of pigment, paint squirting fresh from a tin tube. Sylvia Plath, writing in her journal the month she met Ted Hughes, the day, no, the day before: “What word blue could get that dazzling drench of blue moonlight on the flat, luminous field of white snow, with the black trees against the sky, each with its particular configuration of branches?” No matter the snow, the black trees. The sea was that color, the color of what word blue.
I was reading Plath’s journals that summer because I was twenty-one and daffy with sensation, drunk with it. And for the kind of person who goes straight from a major in English to a graduate program for study of same—that is, for me—The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950–1962, republished that year, unabridged, counts as pleasure reading. They met, Sylvia and Ted did, in February, and were married in June, on the sixteenth, Bloomsday. That was on purpose. On purpose and a dead giveaway—that they shouldn’t have done it I mean, get married. The youthful symbolism of it. Or one of, anyway. One of the dead giveaways. This was, I was, in Otranto, in August. The sea was three shades of what might have been called blue and I was both on vacation and not.
Camila’s parents were Argentinian psychoanalysts and I was on vacation in that they had paid for my flight from New York to London and from London to Rome and from Rome to Brindisi and for the train from Brindisi to Otranto and also for the resort at which we were staying, which was tiered and terraced, smooth-walled and all-inclusive and so theoretically I could order, from the lounge chairs, whitewashed and wooden-slatted, as many drinks as I wanted. Though practically I couldn’t because the reason the flights and the train and the room had been paid for, the reason I was with Camila and her parents at all, was that Camila had twin brothers, seven years old, and it was my job to mind them. Matteo and Tomás, Tomás smaller and fairer and Matteo, his torso tanned, his hair dark and curly, always getting mistaken for a local. Because of the name, too—Artemisia’s father was Italian, hence the spelling. They lived on the Upper West Side, Artemisia and the boys and her husband, Pablo, they were of Argentinian extraction. Camila and I were friends, was another point in the vacation column.
The first two weeks were the hardest. The boys had a nanny back in New York, also Argentinian, but August was her month off, too, and with me at first they had mutinied, as children will do when surrendered to new authority. They couldn’t have known precisely why I was reluctant to run from their room to their parents’ room, double-checking what it was they were and weren’t supposed to be eating and watching, how late they were or weren’t supposed to stay up, but they must have sensed it, my reluctance. My all-encompassing apprehension. Artemisia had given me only parameters—not too many sweets; keep an eye on your wine, they’ll try to tip it into their Coca-Cola—and a different woman would have understood this as license, a different woman would have known, from Artemisia’s eye makeup, from the long shift dresses she wore, sleeveless, from the bracelets that busied her arm, slender and golden, from her sunglasses and scarves, from the fact that Pablo had only ever spoken to me directly three times and never about the children, that the rules were mine to make. But I was an uncertain girl, weak of will and ego, and I wanted Artemisia and Pablo to like me, Artemisia in particular because it was immediately obvious, from her shift dresses and her bracelets and also from the way Pablo angled his head when he spoke to me, so that his eyes, and he was already short, were looking not quite at my face, that her approval would be the harder won. I lived in fear, those first few weeks, that Tomás and Matteo, Teo we called him, so that they were Tom and Teo, the o in Tom narrow, closed, so that it sounded not at all like an abbreviation for the American Thomas, would run to their parents and tell them their new nanny was just awful and couldn’t they send her away. Like I was in some knockoff Henry James novel, some knockoff Merchant Ivory adaptation of same.