There are three large elephants in a tiny room that I must address before launching into a review of the novel here at The Juggler.
First, it’s not a Pagan story at all. It does include a magical goth girl (a much more reasonable trope, in my opinion, than the over-used magical black man) who acts as the classic mentor of the hero (see Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces). And there is moment of ritual in the novel when the protagonist’s boss gathers a bunch of her girlfriends to make “wish collages”, but while the protagonist and her friend Francesca (the goth girl) later note that they both got exactly what they wished for, they are cynical and dismissive of both the ritual and its results.
The reason any Pagan would want to read this novel is the reason that anyone would want to read it: it’s a good read, and has moments of laugh out loud hilarity amid a story of marital estrangement and pain. It’s the first novel I’ve read in years that enticed me to pick it up beyond the normal reading times of my commute.
Second, like all of Ribon’s novels it is semi-autobiographical. Her first novel, Why Girls Are Weird, tells the story of a young blogger who deals with minor internet fame and stalkers. Her second novel, Why Mom’s Are Weird, explores the complex and exasperating relationship between a young woman and her mom. And this most recent novel tells a story of a marriage coming to and end almost immediately after it began, and the healing and empowerment that the main character found unexpectedly through, of all things, roller derby.
The issue is, of course, that all of these things happened to Ribon as anyone who follows her blog would know. Thus, there is some concern that one might confuse the characters with the writer since they share largely similar stories. In the case of Going In Circles I pretty much assumed that everything that happened physically to the main character, Charlotte, in learning to skate and become a derby girl probably occurred to Ribon, and I assume that the particulars of the marital woes were probably more analogous and fictionalized.
The last elephant in the room is, of course, Whip It. At almost exactly the same time as the movie was being filmed, Ribon was discovering roller derby for herself. The two stories are both saddled with the expository challenges of framing the world of roller derby, and both are about women discovering their power in that sport. But Whip It is a coming of age story and a sports movie with all the tropes that sports movies entail. Going In Circles, on the other hand, is centered far more on a young adult’s marital problems, and Charlotte does not even encounter roller derby until past the first hundred pages. Nevertheless, there’s even more behind-the-scenes action and exposition about roller derby to be had in Going In Circles than in the movie Whip It (but that’s likely a consequence of the constraints inherent in film-making).
Ribon stretches herself as an author in this novel. Her first two books were relatively conventional (though charming and funny) narratives. Here, however, Ribon takes a couple of literary risks that push the boundaries of more conventional mainstream novels.
First, she includes a voice-over (specifically by John Goodman, no less). The book is written otherwise from a normal single character first-person decidedly non-omniscient point of view. However, as a coping mechanism, Charlotte, distances herself from some of the pain and anxiety she is facing by imagining that her life is being narrated by John Goodman with whom she shares a surname. The technique is mildly distracting at times, but, ultimately I believe, does serve the story.
Second, and even more risky, is the fact that while Charlotte Goodman is not exactly an unreliable narrator she is a circumspect one. It is a character trait that is consistent with the character’s relationship to others. At one point Charlotte mentions that it’s been a year since she separated from her husband, and I (at least) was shocked to realize that she had managed to keep that fact from her parents who live within driving distance for an entire cycle of holidays, anniversaries and birthdays. Charlotte’s circumspection is a key element in the novel, and the consequences of that trait, to me at least, elevates this novel above Ribon’s prior work.
Going In Circles is set in a secular milieu in which women are often forced to find their power in the margins of society. No one is getting rich in roller derby, and the exploitative aspects of the sport are understood and embraced by its participants. In the end, however, Charlotte is ultimately far better served by her derby marriage to Francesca than her more conventional marriage to a lawyer. As Pagans I think we can relate to Charlotte’s struggles to find her path and her journey towards self-definition and empowerment.. And I think ultimately there’s a critique of marital expectations and norms within the book that should resonate with Pagan readers.