Helen Phillips

photo: David Barry

Author Helen Phillips on looking for books that "get under my skin, inside my body."

I distinctly remember the first book that ever made me cry. It was The Nightingale and the Rose by Oscar Wilde, illustrated by Freire Wright and Michael Foreman. I was six years old when I discovered it on the bookshelf. Enthralled by the sunset colors of the cover, I begged my mother to read it to me before we left for a party.

A nightingale overhears a lovelorn student crying because the young woman he adores says she will only dance with him if he brings her red roses, but there are none left in the garden. Taking pity on this “true lover,” the nightingale consults with the barren rose bushes, and learns that there is only one way a rose can blossom after the frost: “If you want a red rose … you must build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with your own heart’s-blood.” The nightingale, concluding that “Love is better than Life,” thrusts her heart onto the rose’s thorn. But when the student takes the perfect rose to the young woman, she rejects it, for another man has already sent her jewels, and the student throws the rose into the street, where it is crushed by a wheel.

I was beside myself when my mother finished reading the book, and I told her that I could not go to the party; I had to be by myself to cry.

Reading it now, I try to reinsert myself into my six-year-old self. Why were these words the first to unlock for me the exquisite pain that the written word can deliver? Why did this particular story—originally published in 1888—stir me so deeply?

Could it really be because I already intuited that sometimes great gestures of love and generosity are made in vain? Or was it simply the experience of encountering an antidote to Disney, a contrast to all the hopeful stories I had heard up to that point?

What strikes me now is the way the student misunderstands the nightingale: “She is like most artists; she is all style without any sincerity. She would not sacrifice herself for others. She thinks merely of music, and everybody knows that the arts are selfish.”

In any case, The Nightingale and the Rose was the gateway to my ongoing quest for books that get under my skin, inside my body. Since then, I have sought out the catharsis and the comfort of books that acknowledge and articulate the darker aspects of life.

Helen Phillips is the author of, most recently, the novel The Need. Her collection Some Possible Solutions received the 2017 John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Her novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat, a New York Times Notable Book of 2015, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the NYPL Young Lions Award. Her collection And Yet They Were Happy was named a notable collection by The Story Prize. She is also the author of the middle-grade novel Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green. Helen has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and the Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Tin House, and on Selected Shorts. She is an associate professor at Brooklyn College and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, artist Adam Douglas Thompson, and their children.