Reviewed: Innocents and Others By: Dana Spiotta Published by: Scribner, 2016
Dana Spiotta’s fourth novel Innocents and Others tells the story of a strong female friendship spanning over three decades, from the two girls meeting as classmates in high school all the way to meeting for an afternoon movie. The girls’ lives take very different directions from their first meeting in a Los Angeles performing arts high school classroom. One, Carrie, earns a degree in film, and makes a handful of well-known and well-received movies. She makes a name for herself in the film world, contributing essays and reviews to various industry publications. She marries her college sweetheart and they have a son together. The other, Meadow, leads a much more unconventional life, opting out of a college education to build her own film studio in Upstate New York where she makes controversial documentaries about unsavory groups of people. She has a series of romantic partners, but never marries. Also under the microscope is an older woman named Jelly, one of Meadow’s documentary subjects, who gained infamy in Hollywood for cold-calling film industry executives using a stolen Rolodex. But much like Meadow and Carrie, there is more to Jelly than meets the eye.
Dana Spiotta isn’t the first writer to explore female friendships, and she certainly won’t be the last, but the key to this novel’s success is the structure. Spiotta opens with an online article Meadow penned herself about her brief time as a famously reclusive director’s live-in girlfriend. The opening section is laid out like an article one would find on a film news website, complete with a “related links” and comments section. Besides situating the story in a specific time period, the opening article gives readers a taste of not only how we’re supposed to see Meadow, but how Meadow sees herself. When we spend a long section with Carrie as an NYU film student visiting Meadow, we see the girls’ friendship wane and grow stronger in equal measure. Even as young as college students, Meadow and Carrie’s lives have already gone off in two very different directions. Over the course of their intertwining stories, their lives bear so little resemblance to each others’ we are left wondering how they ever became friends to begin with. The greatest contrast between the two is each woman’s relationship to their art. Meadow is a filmmaker first, and a person second, whereas Carrie always puts her personal relationships ahead of her films. This distinction becomes readily apparent when the two meet to catch up after two decades of sometimes-estranged friendship. Carrie blames Meadow, and Meadow does not deflect. Meadow is flawed, but does not apologize, because she understands the necessary sacrifices she has to make for her work. Meadow and Carrie get a satisfying conclusion to their story, in one of the most real depictions of female friendship I’ve ever read.
Though Meadow makes a career filming a variety of subjects from the underbelly of humanity, readers spend the most time with Jelly. She lost her sight due to illness (though she later recovered most of it). She begins a relationship with another blind person, a man involved in “phone phreaking,” an underground trend that uses different frequencies to connect telephone lines without the knowledge of phone providers that took off in the 1960s and 1970s. Spiotta’s writing really shines in the sections where we spend time with Jelly. As Jelly and other supporting characters in her sections are blind, Spiotta uses textural and olfactory descriptions rather than straightforward physical traits. Just as Carrie and Meadow are defined by their interests, Jelly is defined by her blindness. Her blindness was never a disability or hindrance, instead a catalyst for her passion—forging connections with humanity. She takes a job at a call center because she is good at talking to strangers. She becomes a documentary subject for Meadow after beginning a relationship with a film composer. Despite Jelly’s introduction at the start of the novel, her story doesn’t meet Meadow’s until two-thirds of the way through, but I don’t feel like I’m waiting with baited breath until they meet. Jelly is so brilliantly fleshed out as a character. She is constantly at war with herself whether to reveal her true self to the composer, and feels loneliness and desire as much as Meadow and Carrie do. I would read a whole novel about just Jelly. In fact, Spiotta first introduced Jelly as the subject of a short story in The New Yorker in December 2015, called “Jelly and Jack.”
This isn’t just a story about the power of female friendship. Using that as a frame, Spiotta weaves a story of desire, and loneliness, and what real and flawed humans do to cope with those emotions. The book is well-researched. Spiotta name-drops well known directors and film industry names without any pretension. She captures the desolation of upstate New York so accurately that even those who haven’t lived there would understand what it is like. I had the privilege of having Dana Spiotta as one of my professors three years ago in an introduction to fiction writing course. What stuck with me the most from that course was her insistence on becoming a better writer through being a great reader. Innocents and Others is escapism in that it provides a snapshot into the lives of three women whose lives are far more complex than that of mine. But beyond that, this is truly a novel that will make its reader a better writer.
Cassandra Baim grew up outside Chicago and earned a BA in English from Syracuse University. She has been previously published on Medium and The Flexist. When she's not selling books at New York's most famous bookstore, she enjoys biking across the Brooklyn Bridge and teaching her cat to play fetch.