At the time she is kicked out of the house, Jeanette is steadily working her way through the English Literature in Prose A-Z section of the Accrington public library, but is making time for poetry as well. She takes inspiration from the poetry of Andrew Marvell, and decides that she will put “all she can” into finding “a room of her own” and participating in the world outside of Accrington. She feels companionship with the writers whose work she reads, realizing that “writers are often exiles, outsiders, runaways, and castaways.” She feels that the great writers are there in Accrington with her. She takes refuge in the work of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and Charlotte Bronte, fascinated by stories about identity and how one defines oneself. She learns the value of “reading [her]self as a fiction as well as a fact” in order to keep the narrative of her life from running away with itself “toward an ending no one wants.”
Jeanette’s love of literature is more important than ever as she prepares to strike out on her own—it is her company in the face of her family’s utter rejection, and also her lens for viewing the world (as shown in Jeanette’s use of “a room of her own,” a reference to Virginia Woolf’s famous essay A Room of One’s Own, in describing her goal to become a writer and more fulfilled human being). Jeanette begins to understand what it is to conceive of herself as a character and her life as a story—a narrative which will one day come together and make sense, even if things are hazy and difficult at the present moment.
Jeanette feels she has been “tricked or trapped” into leaving home by the “dark narrative” of her life with Mrs. Winterson. She wonders what it would have meant to be happy with her mother—what life could have been like if her mother had not wished for them to be in a world where there were only the two of them, and in which they could only ever fail the other. The only thing that keeps her going in the wake of having left home is the idea that one day she will find her mirror—her “almost-twin”—and find happiness.
Jeanette wants independence, but nonetheless feels that it is unfair she should have to vacate her home just to feel safe. She is angry at her mother for not having been able to expand their world or allow for any differences, and recognizes the destructive and obsessive dynamic between them—but still longs for someone who will be her mirror, and who will complete her.
After days of sleeping in shelters and in public, Jeanette decides to live in her Mini Cooper. The car has been given to her by a boy from church whose parents believe he should learn how to drive, though he is terrified of it. Jeanette reads and eats in the front of the car and sleeps in the back, and drives the Mini around despite the fact that she does not have a license. She spends each Saturday with Janey and continues to work at the Accrington market.
Jeanette’s Mini Cooper is a symbol both of her independence and her imprisonment within that independence. She is on her own, but she is living in unsustainable and unhealthy conditions, and doesn’t have the option to not be on her own.
Jeanette is on the letter “N” in her journey through literature, and is reading Nabokov’s Lolita. She is disgusted by it, and asks her two English teachers what they think of Nabokov. One teacher, a man, defends Nabokov. But when she asks the question of the head of English at her school, Mrs. Ratlow—a flamboyant and unpredictable teacher who is deeply devoted to literature—it leads to a conversation in which Jeanette confesses everything—the fact that she is living in her Mini and reading her way through English Literature A-Z. Mrs. Ratlow tells Jeanette she can stay at her house, gives her a key, and tells her that she must pay for her own food and maintain quiet after 10 p.m. Jeanette confesses that she has never had a key before. Mrs. Ratlow tells Jeanette that she must finish Lolita, but does not have to continue reading alphabetically.
Mrs. Ratlow extends Jeanette an enormous show of kindness—they bond over their love of words, and soon Jeanette is given a key to Mrs. Ratlow’s house, no strings attached, no questions asked. While not exactly a mother figure for Jeanette, Mrs. Ratlow is certainly an emblem of the kinds of love and happiness that are possible to attain. Jeanette, never even having had a key to her own home, is amazed by Mrs. Ratlow’s faith and trust in her, and in the idea that now she has both independence and safety outside of the bounds of her parents’ home.
After school Jeanette goes to the Accrington library, where she is helping the librarian to re-shelve some books. She notices a book by Gertrude Stein, and begins perusing it. The librarian asks Jeanette how her journey through English Literature in Prose A-Z is going, and Jeanette confesses that she is struggling with the letter “N.” The librarian suggests that Jeanette return to Lolita when she is older if she doesn’t like it now, and explains the ways in which one can derive comfort from the Dewey Decimal System—“trouble,” the librarian says, is often “just something that has been filed in the wrong place.”
The librarian’s advice to Jeanette to return to the books she dislikes now as an adult is symbolic of what Jeanette’s larger journey, not just through literature, but through life and love as well, will look like. Jeanette will constantly have to return to her past in order to reexamine it if she wants to fully understand and appreciate all that has happened.
Jeanette leaves the library with Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—a book written by Stein about her female lover—and then drives her Mini Cooper over to Mrs. Ratlow’s house. She is grateful that Mrs. Ratlow is “giving [her] a chance,” though she has no idea whether anything she is doing is “the right thing to do.” That night, Jeanette reads The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Gertrude and Alice are taking a road trip through France, and Gertrude refuses to read maps or drive in reverse. Alice, frustrated, explains that the two of them are on the wrong road, and “Gertrude drives on. She says, ‘Right or wrong, this is the road and we are on it.’”
As Jeanette reads about Gertrude and her lover Alice continuing down the road they have chosen—even if it is not the “right” road—this inspires her to realize that she has set a course for her life, and that whatever the outcome might be, she has at least made a choice which reflects her control over her own circumstances and her desire to move forward.