I am so excited and honoured to post this review by a new Buddhist Fiction Blog Contributing Editor, Kate Brandt. Kate works as a teacher trainer in adult literacy at the City University of New York, and has studied Buddhism for many years. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, and has published in Tricycle, the Buddhist Review, Literary Mama, Talking Writing, the Westchester Review, and Ginosko. Welcome Kate!
Review of The Lightness by Emily Temple
What makes a work of fiction “Buddhist?” For me, as a reader and long-time student of Buddhism, the answer would be that it engages with Buddhist concepts—the Four Noble Truths, the concept of No-Self, to name a few. The Lightness certainly engages with Buddhism. And it performs a difficult feat: showing the impetus that leads to spiritual aspiration while staying rooted in the world of human attachments and concerns.
The Lightness is Olivia’s story, told in first person, of the summer she spent at a place called The Levitation Center, a “Buddhist Boot Camp for Bad Girls.” “Boot camp,” of course, is tongue-in-cheek—the “campers” take part in activities like meditation, ikebana, Zen archery, yoga, and of course, work assignments like kitchen duty or weeding in the garden. In between, they do the things that teenaged girls do—talk about each other; sneak out at night and engage in clandestine rituals; yearn.
There are two especially magnetic characters at the Levitation Center. Luke, the gardener, is introduced to us first through the eyes of Olivia’s first friends at camp:
“He’s kind of a legend…a prodigy…our own personal holy man…he does something to the plants…no one knows what it is.”
All the girls imagine themselves in his arms; he himself has perfected the art of elusiveness. And then there is Serena, a fellow camper, beautiful and even more mysterious:
What was known about Serena: that she was in part Tibetan…that no, obviously she was an heiress…that actually she was a gypsy princess…that she’d slept with a teacher…that she was a virgin.
Serena is the leader of the group of girls Olivia eventually joins. She is unpredictable, and therefore, like Luke, someone you can never quite hold on to.
But there is another, even more enigmatic figure that beckons Olivia: her father. It is from her father that Olivia has learned what she knows about Buddhism, and he is the reason she has come to the Levitation Center. He has left her, and the Levitation Center is the last place she knew him to be. Throughout the novel, flashbacks to conversations Olivia has had with her father reveal the Buddhist ideals she has grown up with:
Let me ask you this,” my father said. “Where is the self? Can you point to it? Can you tell me what color it is? No, not your sternum. Not your eye. Your Olivia.”
He shaped her. Now he is gone.
That is the salient feature of Olivia’s father: he is gone. Like Siddhartha himself, for all of his elegant detachment, Olivia’s father is essentially a deadbeat dad. His absence points to a tension at the heart of Buddhism that I have always struggled with: Buddhism teaches detachment, but under the guise of being peaceful, can one be too detached—as in, uncaring?
Olivia’s pain and bewilderment at this abandonment is what drives the novel. Nor is Olivia the only one of her friends who harbors a secret wound. Another in the group has panic attacks. Yet another has been abandoned not by one parent, but by both. In response to this disappointment in the world, this dukkha, they follow the path of Siddhartha: they seek to transcend.
In The Lightness, the desire to transcend takes the form of a quest. Throughout their summer at the camp, the girls are determined to learn to levitate—to actually rise into the air. They try a variety of methods to achieve this: getting Luke, the gardener, to teach them; breathing and thought exercises; not eating; special teas. It is Serena who is most determined to achieve this: as we learn towards the end of the novel, she has the most grief to rise above, the most pain to leave behind.
This central metaphor of the novel—the desire to rise above it all—tells a truth about spiritual seeking that many of us, I believe, will recognize. Siddhartha left his palace, discovered what life is truly about—short, painful, and then we die—and decided to throw away his easy life, go into the forest to meditate, and find an answer. Like him, each of us at one point realizes that, as writer Mark Epstein put it, life is a catastrophe. We are disappointed, and the impulse is to leave in some way. Slip out of the house, and go into the forest to figure it all out. Rise into the air and out of sight. In this way, I found The Lightness told a satisfying truth about spiritual longing.
A disappointment I felt was Olivia’s repudiation of Buddhism—indeed of all religion. Towards the end of the novel, Olivia declares “I have decided I hate religion.” Perhaps this was inevitable. Her father introduced her to Buddhism, and through his absence and fecklessness, he has rejected her. So Buddhism—in fact, religion in general–is rejected as well. Too bad that the belief system got thrown out with the character who introduced her to it. Too many books about religion, I feel, take it up only to reject it.
I will not spoil the book by revealing whether the girls achieve their quest. Let’s just say that while transcendence is not achieved by all, it is not presented as impossible, either. I loved this book and highly recommend it. For anyone who has studied Buddhism—for anyone at all, really, who has experienced loss, and quested for answers, The Lightness is a compelling and worthy read.
Pub info: The Lightness by Emily Temple, William Morrow, New York, NY, 2020