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Marisa Silver On ‘The Mysteries’ Of Life And St. Louis In The '70s

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Marisa Silver by Bader Howar
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Marisa Silver's new novel, "The Mysteries," explores the friendship of two young St. Louisans.

Two 7-year-olds forge a fast friendship in 1973. Margaret Brenneman, better known as “Miggy,” is loud and reckless and goes to public school in Maplewood. Ellen Gallagher is careful and polite and lives in a much fancier house in Webster Groves. But they are inseparable, until suddenly they are separated.

Marisa Silver’s new novel, “The Mysteries,” paints not only a portrait of the two girls, but of St. Louis and its suburbs in a moment of time. Miggy’s parents are barely scraping by, regretting the choices that kept them in St. Louis. Her father runs the family’s old hardware store, in University City, but his neighboring retailers are clearing out. Ellen’s mother and stepfather have a vast, silent house in Webster Groves, but her stepfather is busily building the prefab homes that will empty out the central city.

Silver said that the city’s 1970s nadir was very much on her mind as she wrote the book.

“A lot of the history of the city, at least in the 20th century, has to do with what happened during that period when so many people moved to suburbs and the outskirts and even across the river,” she explained on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “And that sense of a hollow core — which now is obviously much more vibrant, and has come back to life — I think in the ‘70s was very much there, and all across this country. In 1973, there was a recession. Inner cities, post-industrial cities that could no longer rely on their industry were really suffering in that same way that St. Louis did. I chose it because it provides an emotional backdrop for this story, that sense of decline and uncertainty.”

'The Hopeful-Hopeless Balance Between Decay and Renewal'
Listen to Marisa Silver discuss her view of '70s-era St. Louis

Silver is based in Los Angeles. In writing about St. Louis, she said she drew on both her childhood in the Midwest (she was born in Cleveland) and her visits to St. Louis with her husband, Ken Kwapis, a native of Belleville.

“I think that my sense memories, and my feeling for that period of my childhood is very much colored by my life in Ohio,” she said. Of St. Louis, she added, “I’ve spent an enormous amount of time in the city, and I’ve become fascinated by its beauty, and its architecture, and its history, and so it just felt like a really fertile place for me to set this novel.”

The novel delves into how we make peace with where we are, and the questions of when to leave versus when to stay. But as its title suggests, it also gets into the bigger questions of the universe.

“The mysteries are various,” Silver said. “And I think what the title refers to are the unanswerable questions we all have to confront in our lives: The ones in particular that Miggy is beginning to confront throughout the course of this novel, that have to do with life and death and faith and disbelief and all these central core questions that, even though we think of them as being adult questions, they really begin to brew in the lives of young children.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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