The PFG Book Club: Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman

It’s a strange process, the zigs and zags that can make a reader pick up a book.  Case in point:  a recent story in The New Yorker name-checked a book called ‘The Art of Political Murder’ by Francisco Goldman.  So I recognized the name when I spotted the book on one of the new release table in the store.  The jacket description was the money shot for me.

‘Say Her Name,’ while classified as a novel and using literary techniques, tells the true story of Francisco Goldman’s courtship and marriage to the much younger essayist Aura Estrada, and her accidental drowning death in 2007 while vacationing in Mexico, an accident Estrada’s mother and uncle wholly blame Goldman for.  So not only must Goldman contend with the depths of his own loss, but the with the guilt from his in-laws’ hatred.

Confession time, friends:  I love dead spouse stories.  While I typically vomit at the trauma-porn stylings of Cathy Glass or Dave Pelzer, something about widows and widowers always draw me in.  I don’t know what it is, maybe I’m trying to prepare for the worst, but I’ll always give them a read, from Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking to Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mixtape.  The form would seem to dictate the author take one of two approaches: testify their own love for the deceased, or convince the reader to love them as much as the writer did.  The latter approach rarely works, which is unfortunately the one Goldman takes.

His love for Estrada cannot be argued; it is clear how much she meant to him, how essential she was/is in his life. And if the book were about 150 pages shorter, it could have been perfect, but Goldman wants to recreate her, to make me and you and everyone who reads the book love him as much as he does, and does her a great disservice in the process.

He makes her into an irritating manic pixie dream girl. Goldman wants us to find Estrada’s insecurities over her developing writing career endearing, but I found it hard to connect with the hardships of a woman who not only studies her PhD at Columbia, but starts MFA studies at another institution and gets to flit between Mexico and Brooklyn. Well, poor her.  Goldman also wants us to be charmed by her eccentricities, the way she mocks his age, the jeans-under-dress fashion decisions, the Hello Kitty toaster…. perhaps I’m just a soulless asshole [distinct possibility], but the portrait Goldman paints of Estrada seems eerily similar to all the post-grad English majors I’ve ever known, who’ve had their heads pushed completely up their own asses by the isolation of academic life. It’s not anyone I would choose to spend any time with at this stage in my life.

And it’s unfortunate, because Goldman does offer a moving portrayal of his grief, and the difficulty of battling with his mother-in-law on everything from evicting him from an apartment in Mexico, to her withholding Estrada’s remains from Goldman. I was particularly moved by his descriptions of using Aura’s toiletries, his reluctance to use her shampoo, of eroding what’s left behind of her, of his fascination by the grooves her fingers left in her jar of body scrub, these are all truly touching.

But ultimately, it’s not enough to save the book.  What could have been an incredibly powerful essay or shorter work sags and bloats as a 320 page novelized recollection.  If Goldman had kept Estrada more to himself, the book would have succeeded for me.  Instead, I was slogging through the last half of the book, waiting for her to die, and ashamed of myself for wishing it.

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