Jessica Handler learned creative writing from the late Pat Conroy when he served as a guest instructor at the Paideia School in Atlanta, just prior to the publication of his first novel, The Great Santini. Handler, the author of two memoirs, published her debut novel The Magnetic Girl in April of this year. The nonprofit Pat Conroy Literary Center (905 Port Republic Street, Beaufort) will host Handler for a reading and discussion of her novel on Tuesday, August 6, at 5:30 p.m. Free and open to the public, the discussion will be followed by a book signing.
The Magnetic Girl has been named one of Wall Street Journal’s Ten Books You’ll Want to Read this Spring, an Indie Next Pick, and a Spring Okra Pick of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. Set in rural north Georgia two decades after the Civil War, the novel follows thirteen-year-old Lulu Hurst. Lulu reaches high into her father’s bookshelf and pulls out an obscure book, The Truth of Mesmeric Influence. Deemed gangly and undesirable, Lulu wants more than a lifetime of caring for her disabled baby brother, Leo, with whom she shares a profound and supernatural mental connection.
Lulu begins to “captivate” her friends and family, controlling their thoughts and actions for brief moments at a time. After Lulu convinces a cousin she conducts electricity with her touch, her father sees a unique opportunity. He grooms his tall and indelicate daughter into an electrifying new woman: The Magnetic Girl. Lulu travels the Eastern seaboard, captivating enthusiastic crowds by lifting grown men in parlor chairs and throwing them across the stage with her “electrical charge.”
The Magnetic Girl is set at a time when the emerging presence of electricity raised suspicions about the other-worldly gospel of Spiritualism, and when women’s desire for political, cultural, and sexual presence electrified the country. The Magnetic Girlis a unique portrait of a forgotten period in history, seen through the story of one young woman’s power over her family, her community, and ultimately, herself.
In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews praised, “Handler captures the ambivalence of female adolescence, where the newfound ability to captivate others exists in unsteady balance with the fear of loss of independence. A thoroughly fresh historical novel that both captures the essence of its time and echoes challenges that still exist today.”
“This is a story that gets at the core of what it’s like to be alive, honing in on modern day feminist anxieties through the lens of a distant time when electricity was glamorous instead of merely a technological afterthought. Handler provides a touching look at how human desire doesn’t always equal what is right, and the result is an astonishing tale that does not pander or falter, but crackles with magic,” offered the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Jessica Handler is also the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Invisible Sisters: A Memoir, which was named one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read” and Atlantamagazine’s “Best Memoir of 2009.” Handler writes essays and nonfiction features that have appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Full Grown People, Brevity, Newsweek, The Washington Post,and More Magazine.
TripAdvisor’s top-ranked destination in Beaufort, the nonprofit Pat Conroy Literary Center is located at 905 Port Republic Street in historic downtown and open to the public from noon to 4:00 p.m. on Thursdays through Sundays. Winner of the 2019 Civitas Award for Tourism Leadership presented by the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Conroy Center is South Carolina’s first affiliate of the American Writers Museum and second American Library Association Literary Landmark. Through its interpretive center, year-round educational programs, and annual literary festival, the Conroy Center preserves and continues the literary legacy of Pat Conroy (1945–2016) as a teacher, mentor, advocate, and friend to readers and writers alike. To learn more about the Conroy Center, please visit www.patconroyliterarycenter.org.