A gloriously stunning debut novel, Jana Casale’s “The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky” follows Leda, a college student in Boston, as she navigates her life and identity over the years. It’s a simple setup to a story that somehow talks about everything while seemingly going on about absolutely nothing.
Leda is an aspiring writer. She studies in coffee shops because of the way they make her feel. She eats cold, leftover spaghetti over the sink because she didn’t want to eat too much in front of the boy with whom she just had dinner. She putters around her studio apartment, taking magazine quizzes with her feet up on the wall and listening to Édith Piaf until she’s bored because everything gets boring at some point — even putting your feet up on the wall and reading about how you’re a “fierce and relentless” sexual warrior.
Moving with a sharp fluidity, Casale trails Leda as the years turn into decades, and she turns every moment into something important for Leda — a moment that, 10 or 20 or 37 years later, she wouldn’t be the same without. Everything that happens to Leda leads to something else happening and everything that doesn’t happen to her creates a cavity for something else that never happens. It should be noted, though, that there’s an inherent privilege in being able to both exist as and identify with a character who has enough time to endlessly simmer in her own thoughts. Leda’s life isn’t grand or spectacular in any way — but it is privileged, and it’s made up of these astonishingly vital, mundane instances.
The entire novel dances this line between Leda’s contemplations and her reality, constantly allowing one to inform the other. We get her wedding engagement through her anger and ankle pain. When she meets the boy who makes her want to read Noam Chomsky, it’s on the only day of her life when she ate multiple scones. She never sees the boy again and she never ends up reading Noam Chomsky.
I’m sitting in a coffee shop, crunching ice because I think I made myself anemic, and someone once told me that anemic people crunch ice, and I’m jarred. I feel called out. I’ve never met a protagonist who thinks in the same haphazard, anecdotal terms as I do. There were moments when reading from this little green novel felt like reading from the little green notebook I have hidden away in my apartment (a studio, where I put my feet up on the wall and eat cold pasta over the sink).
When I started reading, so much of Leda’s story resonated with me that I carried on reading with the notion that the story was about me — some kind of narcissistic, prophetic happenstance that found its way into my life because the universe knew I’ve been feeling funky and erroneous lately. I tried to find my fate in Leda’s when all of a sudden she graduates from college and follows her boyfriend to California. She has a daughter and loses herself in motherhood, letting it redefine her own purpose. She watches her friends marry men who didn’t even come close to the standards they continued to rattle on about.
The second I realized that this book wasn’t about me, and wasn’t even about Leda, really, I gripped it even tighter. I found even more of myself in it than I had before because this book, this unassuming green narrative I plucked from a stack of purples and beiges, is about women. It’s about how we scramble for value in smiling at a stranger and having him smile back, even though it’s unsafe to run around meeting the gaze of strangers. It’s about how we always know, to some degree, that we’ll be doing sit ups until the day we die. It’s about the color pink.
On a day that had a particularly good start, after Leda ate a jelly donut for breakfast and read aloud in class, she noticed her reflection on her walk home. Casale writes: “She was shaped like a teardrop, a hunched teardrop walking around and smiling at people and living her life like she deserved a place on this earth. Who in the hell do I think I am? she thought, and she fixed her shirt and sucked in her stomach and walked past that reflection as fast as she could, as fast as any teardrop could have managed.”
I know who in the hell she thought she was. Leda thought she was the type of girl who could eat two jelly donuts in one day without thinking about it, without losing the effervescence that made her linear. Leda was consumed with being linear, with being tall and slender and careless in her beauty. This concept of linearity lingers throughout Leda’s entire life, manifesting itself in the ever-changing love she has for herself as she grows older.
I think about this girl every day: This girl who eats donuts because she can, who throws her head back when she laughs and forever glows, even when she’s sweating. She has hair that doesn’t frizz when it rains and lips that are always glossy, no matter how cold it is outside. Linear.
She’s not Leda and she’s not me. She’s also just not. She’s a person who Leda and I look at, and curse ourselves for not being, and she feels like a teardrop sometimes, too. She’s a woman.
I wish I had this book when I was younger, before the fragility of a torn sense of self-worth started to settle in. I wish I had it before this fragility started to rust, sprinkling itself over hands that weren’t always pinching my stomach or pretending to carry out conversations that are too scary to have with people that are too scary to have them with. In one swift motion, Casale drop-kicked my heart and brushed my hair. She took me to the most intimate moments I’ve had with myself and used Leda to propel me through them.
“The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky” is a striking debut by Casale. It’s poignant in its relatability and elegant in its honesty. I’m holding it close to me, and I don’t intend on letting it go anytime soon.