The Bowl is Already Broken Paperback – 6 Nov 2006
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`Light, crisp and engaging' -- Daily Telegraph
`Riveting, witty and subtle' -- Margaret Forster
`Spiking her tale with humour, Zuravleff shows how neatly
everything interconnects ... emotionally astute' -- Independent
From the Publisher
A big, rewarding novel about art, politics, family, terrorism,
courage, and happiness.
Top Customer Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Each character revels in and is held prisoner by his or her own obsessions. Even though the characters exist in the microcosm of museum life, this book is such a full story in the world. While revealing the inner workings of a museum, the author also unravels the stories of objects; the meaning expressed in the fabulous decorations of Chinese porcelains as well as their cultural and historical significance. But these descriptions are intertwined with the action, and add significantly to the depth of the characters and the plot. So, when the former director takes off on an archaeological expedition in central Asia, the worlds of art and politics collide. The politics work so well precisely because the author avoids being dull or preachy. This is a clever novel full of beauty and wit.
That's one of the challenges facing Promise Whittaker, a tiny, brilliant scholar who looks and sounds like an eighth-grader, but whose common sense has put her in this fix. Promise would much rather be researching her beloved poet Rumi than being responsible for trying to attract enough funding to keep the museum open. Her mentor has suddenly decamped to join a dig in an especially remote desert. Her colleagues are up to all sorts of mischief, and oh, she's pregnant again at 42.
Zuraleff is a former staff member at the Smithsonian, and you get a great idea about what goes on behind the scenes in putting an exhibit together. There is neatly presented information about Rumi and different areas of Asian art. You even find out what to do if you are taken hostage by terrorists, thanks to Promise's husband, who works for Amnesty International.
Yet even with the wealth of characters (my favorite is the curator of ancient Chinese art who is looting her travel fund to pay for fertility treatments), "The Bowl is Already Broken" -like poor Promise-starts to tangle its own feet. The hostage-taking episode, despite that useful escape information, is not really very gripping, and you are left wondering what several of the characters were actually up to.
Nevertheless, Zuraleff's novel is quirky and readable enough to keep you going if you can flutter lightly over some of the stumbles. Where else can you find a compendium of famous museums' worst disasters? And who hasn't wanted to work at a museum? I suspect her first novel is worth checking out, too.
Why the discrepancy - the disconnect in perception of men's and women's lives, male and female writers? Many of my male friends at that time hadn't read many novels by women authors, though I still suspect that they wouldn't consider a novel like Kate Chopin's The Awakening or Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway as pulling the weight that say, The Sun Also Rises, might.
While I still don't have the answer to this fundamental question about men's and women's perceptions of literature, I'm happy to report that Mary Kay Zuravleff's The Bowl is Already Broken is a novel that pulls a lot of weight in its presentation of a heroine, Promise Whittaker, whose life is replete with domestic crises on the personal and professional front as well as the realities of international terrorism. It is this complement of the quotidian and world headline fodder that makes the book a satisfying and thought-provoking read.
Promise Whittaker is both a Rumi scholar and a mother and wife. By day she studies Rumi pages at the Museum of Asian Art, a part of the National Institution of Science and Art in Washington, D.C. By night she flings pasta into bowls for her family - husband Leo, a worker for Amnesty International, and two less-than-perfect children, Felix and Lydia. Her home is in shambles, both literally and figuratively; her babysitter is ready to run or to receive the ax, and each time Promise returns to the house, one more thing has structurally fallen apart or come unglued.
When Promise is asked to become acting director of the museum after the former director, her beloved mentor, takes off to dig up history in the Taklamakan Desert, she knows almost immediately that she's in over her head, especially after a variety of strange symptoms and the results from an expired early pregnancy test lead her to believe that she's pregnant with an unexpected child. For this reader, the realism of the "unexpected" is particularly powerful in terms of what it says about the lives of women. Promise is stretched, her short body metaphorically strung on a rack, limbs pulled intensely in opposite directions. She becomes an archetype for all women who are stretched in too many directions as she is forced to juggle the imminent closing of the museum, a prospect that has been kept from her for too long, the startling news that her mentor has been taken hostage, and the idiosyncratic challenges that face any mother with young children.
One of my favorite passages involves an intense day for Promise during which the crowning moment is her conversation with her frantic daughter who calls from school, convinced that she is being attacked by snakes which are gliding under her pants next to her skin. After navigating her child's incoherent sobs, Promise realizes that the seams of her daughter's pants have come unraveled after a recent wash - the threads are fluttering next to her skin like long, wiggly snakes. Mothers and fathers of sensitive children the world over can chuckle knowingly at this passage, which chronicles a trauma that won't make headline news but is certainly the trump of household drama.
Zuravleff's own trump is that she marries these moments with the complexities that we all face in the modern world - terrorism that can snatch away friends and relatives in the night, the bureaucracy one encounters in surviving a nine-to-five work day, the realities of downsizing, the challenge of getting along with other employees and negotiating their traumas and peccadilloes. In addition, Zuravleff tells the story from a wandering minstrel point of view, so that the reader enjoys sailing into the heads of a wide range of characters, from Promise and her husband to her captive boss, to the charming Arthur, another curator and breaker of the bowl referred to in the book's title. The crew is a diverse one, and like the Museum's exquisite cook, the book provides a lovely smorgasbord of the variety that spices up real life, something that we need to be reminded of in our sometimes monochromatic, monotheistic, ethnocentric world.
The Bowl is Already Broken succeeds as a satire of the museum world, certainly, but it also succeeds as a rich novel that chronicles the lives of everyday people who go out and face the world each morning, albeit sometimes pregnant or with snakes in their pants.
Exquisite porcelain from China and calligraphies from Japan are displayed in the elegantly marbled galleries of the fictional National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C. While to the public crossing the threshold, the museum's hushed spaces convey a reverential and timeless serenity, behind the scenes the staff is in turmoil. A curator has dropped an irreplaceable Chinese porcelain down the museum's grand staircase and the director has resigned. The internal candidate who has been appointed acting director finds she is juggling the vying attentions not only of her friends who are now her staff, but also her family, and her blossoming pregnancy.
Passions, of all sorts, drive the men and women in whose hands are placed the world's artistic heritage. The museum's staff take it as their duty to share their enthusiasm for the art and culture of two-thirds of the world's people. But the powerful symbolism imbued in these cultural masterpieces is not lost on America's political elite either. Contrasting views on the importance of understanding different cultural perspectives are reflected throughout this novel.
A former staff member at the Smithsonian Institution, author Mary Kay Zuravleff delights us with gems of insight into what inspires those who hold custody of the world's greatest art treasures. Her beguiling prose illuminates both the vast arid deserts of Central Asia and the cacophonous world of family life in D.C. with affecting clarity. Part cultural observer, part Sufi mystic, this gifted storyteller has woven a tale for our times.