Shira is a frustrated temp and Ph.D. dropout, living in Manhattan with her daughter, Andi, and best friend and co-parent, Ahmad. She quits one menial job to another, tired of stuffing envelopes and being told to smile. Her past is scarred with abandonments: most bruisingly, a mother who left her and her father when she was young. And she feels like she's veered off track; once she'd translated Dante and dreamed of literary fame, but instead, "I'd written a few stories, translated this and that, [and] contributed, temporarily, to the efficiency of marginal businesses throughout the city."
But for all the heartbreak and paper cuts, Shira is basically OK. She loves her daughter, loves taking her for ice cream and sitting in the pizza slice-shaped park by their house ("Slice of Park"), going to the neighborhood coffee shop, and tucking her in at night. Andi yells "Topeka!" instead of "Eureka!," begs for cake and communicates telepathically with Tinky Winky.
And then one day, the phone rings. It's the elusive and reclusive Nobel Prize winning poet Romei — an exiled Romanian poet living in Rome, a Paul Celan-like figure who stands, in Shira's mind, for aggressively postmodern nihilism. He's read her work on Dante's Vita Nuova and wants her to translate his newest work, also called Vita Nuova and based on Dante's poem, into English. For Shira, it seems like her own New Life come at last: "It was suddenly so easy to imagine: exchanging insights and recipes for tiramisu with Romei at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, the translation published to mammoth acclaim, authors calling, begging for my help. I'm booked till 2020! I'd say."
But when she starts working, she finds that the manuscript is filled with untranslatable wordplay — wordplay, moreover, that only a translator would notice. And it resounds with odd echoes of Shira's own stories. It seems, almost, to have been written for her — and as the mystery deepens, Shira's home life begins to disintegrate.
In Rachel Cantor's novel Good on Paper, translation serves as a continual metaphor for relationships: Translation is a kind of betrayal because pure fidelity to a text is impossible. But it also "requires, and generates, a rare kind of intimacy," Shira notes. "Like sex done right, I've always thought. The translator makes a holy commitment to understand, to listen with all possible intensity, to step backward, ever backward, through the labyrinth of an author's ideas and devices, uncovering his decisions and triumphs, line by line, until she arrives, finally, at the moment of creation."
In certain ways Good on Paper is an academic novel, but it's telling that the main character drops out of her Ph.D. program. Academic culture often treats texts as specimens rather than products of beating hearts. This makes sense up to a certain point — in scholarship, you hope for analysis, not feelings. But it can still feel like a loss. So novels that take subjects of scholarship and show their effects on human hearts (most perfectly, A.S. Byatt's Possession) feel like an almost guilty pleasure, a confirmation that someone else, too, has had their breath taken away by Dante, that books survive not just as data for study but because they move us.
Good on Paper is clever, if occasionally too taken with its own cleverness. It's intensely self-referential, and we are constantly given meaningful nudges about how to interpret the plot. Each character has a long biographical dossier that would be better replaced with a couple of character-revealing choices or moments.
Cantor does not have that most spectral and fugitive genius: a novelist's sense of timing and proportion. Conversations between characters are either summarized so briefly that we don't get a sense of who the players are or what's at stake, or re-created at trying length. But the style is a wonderfully exuberant mixing of registers: scholarly to colloquial to campishly zany and back.
Is New Life possible? The answer, of course, is yes and no. This is a book about figuring out how to love: as a daughter, as a mother, as a lover, as a friend. Dante represents love and fidelity — but he barely knew Beatrice, his alleged guiding star. Romei represents postmodern disillusionment — but his acts, we discover when the mystery is finally illuminated, are ones of true devotion. Between these two paradoxical poles Shira finds a better kind of love, based on the choice to forgive and empathize. In Good on Paper, Cantor creates a compelling vision of what love is. It's not a feeling but — like translation — an act: a willful opening of one self to another.
Annalisa Quinn is a freelance journalist and critic covering books and culture.