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FRL Spotlight Review: McPhee’s Marvelous Gardens

Up to now I’ve been immune to the Famous Writer Panic Syndrome, where an MFA student is so rocked by the exquisite perfection of a famous writer that it sends the student into a spiral of anxiety and depression. I know I don’t write as well as Virginia Woolf or Gretel Ehrlich, but I am a big girl, and I can cope.

However, FWPS set in with a vengeance late one night this week during an insomnia-produced reading jag when swaddled in comforters on the living room couch, tabby cat in lap, I read and re-read John McPhee’s essay, “In Search of Marvin Gardens.” I alternately swooned and panicked as McPhee’s astute, microscopically observant eye moved through the streets of Atlantic City, mimicking a game of Monopoly, commenting without commenting on the history and decay of the famous boardwalk city, so elegantly using Show for Tell.

Browsing Gale’s Literature Resource Center, I found a quote from McPhee with his own astute commentary on his beautiful evidence-based approach to nonfiction narrative. “I find myself disappointed when I read something like ‘This writer is really interested in facts, he just loves facts.’ It’s like saying that somebody who is a painter really loves paint, he just can’t get enough of it, he eats it in the morning.”

As with his essay about Indian River oranges, in “The Search for Marvin Gardens” McPhee is in part announcing that there is no subject that a great writer cannot make beautiful. I shiver, I seethe, I envy, but ultimately, in the fullness of my writer’s heart, I admire.

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