Shapland’s nonfiction debut isn’t a biography of McCullers, with whom she feels a powerful kinship, though it fills in key absences in the record left by McCullers’s biographers, who downplayed her affairs with women. It is, instead, a hard-won inquiry into how we seek out the truth of ourselves and others in ways that often, by necessity, aren’t straightforward, that arrive in our lives in glimmering bits and shards. Shapland’s quest is echoed in the book’s form: Short chapters detailing her search for clues to McCullers’s relationships with women mix with meditations on her own struggle for self-knowledge — the very scaffolding that literary history, and to some extent, our selves, depends on.
Shapland was an intern at the Harry Ransom Center, a writers’ and artists’ archive at the University of Texas at Austin, when she discovered love letters written to McCullers from Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, a Swiss heiress with whom McCullers had an affair. Within a week of discovering the letters, Shapland cut her hair short; within a year, she was calling herself a lesbian “more or less comfortably.” A chronicle of literary possession ensues: At the Ransom Center, Shapland cataloged McCullers’s kimonos and vibrantly hued coats; on a monthlong writing residency, she lived in McCullers’s childhood home in Columbus, Ga., bathing in her tub and making biscuits in her kitchen. For a brief period in her 20s, Shapland took to wearing a silk robe with magenta polka dots over her clothes. Asking herself, “What would Carson do?,” she drank half a bottle of bourbon on the first night of another residency and spent the next day in fetal position.
Obsession can feel a lot like coming of age — exhilarating, a little awkward, even, at times, absurd. McCullers, too, seemed always to be seeking a kind of confirmation of self or mentorship in older women she admired. In 1958, when Richard Avedon took her picture, she told him, “I just want to look like Greta Garbo.” During one of her stays at Yaddo, the writers’ colony, legend has it that McCullers lay at the threshold of Katherine Anne Porter’s room, waiting for the older, established writer to emerge at dinnertime. (When she finally did, Porter simply stepped over McCullers’s prone body.)
In matters of self-presentation, McCullers — a literary it girl from the time she published her first novel, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” at 23 — was on point. Fashion was a more coded form of expression: McCullers’s embroidered vests and bluejeans spoke the things she couldn’t say aloud. Even after she was too ill to wear much more than nightgowns — a bout of rheumatic fever damaged her heart, leading to a series of strokes that left her partially paralyzed — she had them specially made by a French seamstress.
The difficulty in overcoming this instinct to code and conceal is what gives Shapland’s book its considerable stakes. In an early, quietly drawn scene, she recalls the time she brought her girlfriend — officially, her freshman roommate — home from college to visit her family. Over dinner, her mother confronted them about their relationship, giving a dramatic reading of tender passages she found while snooping in Shapland’s notebooks.