Victoria 2

A young Queen Victoria – four early years in the life of the second longest serving monarch in British history (1835 – 1839, Kensington and Buckingham Palace):  It’s a thought-provoking political time to be reading Victoria, British bestselling author Daisy Goodwin’s third historical novel set during the Victorian era.

I say this because Alexandrina Victoria’s ascension to the throne at the tender age of 18, after her uncle King William IV died, provoked tremendous anxiety and skepticism of her ability to govern during “uncertain times,” reminiscent of the fears and distrust about President-elect Donald Trump’s capacity to lead.  Similarly, early on in Queen Victoria’s reign, “the first mass movement driven by the working classes” (known as the Chartist Movement) sprang up, resonant of the fervent concerns of America’s working class that fueled Trump’s victory.

While this is not a political blog, Victoria is a political book that sends a timely message about duty to country above everything else, seen most impressively through the heart-tugging, dazzling character of Lord Melbourne.  He was her first Prime Minister.  He also became the young queen’s Private Secretary, her most trusted and influential advisor and defender.  Theirs was a deepening relationship that, for me, was the delicious aspect of the novel.

Melbourne, about fifty, initially served as a father figure (Victoria had lost hers).  Then he became her dearest companion, most comfortably as her riding partner.  From there, their relationship evolved to something more alluring, an emotional closeness that disturbed nearly everyone, spurning rumors and schemes to find her a suitable husband.  But it’s Melbourne, with his “arresting green eyes” – a “stealer of hearts” – who steals ours.

A man who didn’t have “the happiness he deserves,” so we can’t help but like and appreciate him, who put country first no matter the personal sacrifice, qualities of character I feel we saw very little of during the 2016 political campaign.  “I don’t believe in much,” he confessed.  “But there is one thing I do believe in, and that is the British Constitution, in all its tattered glory.”  Melbourne’s significance to the fledgling, untested queen – his encouragement, candor, counsel, integrity, affection, and charm – are standouts.

Queen Victoria reigned for 63 years.  So I also found it interesting Goodwin chose to focus only on Victoria from ages 16 through 20: two years before she was bequeathed the Crown to the first two years of her dynasty.  The novel shows us why.

These were transformative years, giving us context into understanding Victoria’s temperament and the challenges facing her.  She was small-framed and short at 4 ft. 11 inches.  The crown, throne, silverware all too big.  More significantly, it was “hard to be regal when everyone could see the top of your head,” she says, but Lord Melbourne tells her she’s “every inch a queen.”  He’s wonderfully steadfast in these lovely proclamations about her “natural dignity.” (“There was something regal about the resolute tilt of her head and the steady pace at which she walked.”)

Those early years enlighten us to the origins of Victoria’s feisty, independent spirit, which propelled her resolve through a rocky period of inexperience, unsureness, scandals, and crises.  Her determination is seen, for instance, in her tough treatment of her controlling mother and of her mother’s odious, jockeying-for-power confidante, Sir John Conway.

Those two princess years, depicted in a Prologue, reveal a very lonely girl, overly protected, isolated, and friendless, so much so her upbringing is termed the “Kensington System.” Resentment towards her mother, Duchess of Kent, formerly a German princess, and her deceitful Comptroller and advisor, Conway, come to fruition the moment Victoria becomes “Her Majesty the Queen.”  She’s overcome by the “thrill in being able to do what she pleases,” which she does when it comes to both of them.  Bright spots in Drina’s (a pet name) childhood were her devoted governess, Baroness Lehzen, and attachment to her spaniel, Dash.  Both play meaningful roles when Victoria is anointed Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.  Those first two monarch years encompass around 400 pages, flowing in short chapters divided into Books 1 through 4.

Yet, googling to get a sense of the breadth and happenings during the span of Victoria’s lengthy sovereignty, I found other curious historical facts that could have been featured in a novel on the monarch, such as six attempted assassinations and mothering nine children who married other European royals, producing 37 great-grandchildren and the nickname “grandmother of Europe.”  The source and inspiration for the novel were Victoria’s diaries: 62 million words!  Obviously, an extraordinary amount of material.  Since Victoria was a pleasure to read, seems the novelist made a smart decision.

It’s also a perfect time to read Victoria, before PBS Masterpiece Theater airs Victoria, an eight-part miniseries, in January 2017 in the same Sunday night timeslot as Downton Abbey.  Goodwin also wrote the screenplay.  Her interests and talent for creating rich-in-historical details fiction and film surely stem, in part, from her study of history at Cambridge University and film production at Columbia University as a Harkness Fellow.

The novel offers insight into how British government and royalty works – befuddling rules of succession, the “delicate relationship between Monarch and Parliament,” protocol, ceremonial duties, charity obligations, and the like.

At times, I longed for a royalty/family tree as there’s a multitude of royal and non-hereditary characters to keep track of, some good but many awfully ambitious and conspiring with their own political agendas, which seems ordained by laws and a class system bound by rules and expectations.  You will, though, keep the most important, influential ones clear in your mind as the author brings them to life.

Still, I thought readers might welcome a few images, below, of some key characters who were historical figures in this expansive period in British life that came to be known as the Victorian era.  This allows me to not give much away, yet perhaps gives you a glimpse into the people and setting the author immerses us in.  In short, this is not a light summer read.  Rather, it’s a meticulously rendered, historically intriguing one.

Victoria broke the longest period I’ve gone without blogging.  Characterized by too many dark, depressing, angry books, plots and prose I couldn’t praise as enchanted.  Some were page-turners, others I couldn’t finish.  Is this also a reflection of the times?

Another reason to read this novel now.  Yes, there was unrest, cutthroat machinations, and wrongdoings.  But there was also grace under enormous pressure and odds, courage, benevolence, and a refreshing allegiance to country told keenly and in uplifting prose.  A gift for all of us this holiday season.  Lorraine

Young Queen and her beloved dog Dash

Lord Melbourne, P.M., Private Secretary, Confidante, Companion

Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, widowed

Sir John Conroy, nefarious advisor to the Queen’s mother

Grand Duke Alexander of Russia, an admirer of the Queen

Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, son of Queen Victoria’s uncle, Leopold I of Belgium, therefore Victoria’s cousin, whom Leopold burns for the young Queen to marry


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Behind Closed Doors

A man, a marriage too perfect – BEWARE! (Spring Eaton, twenty miles outside London, present-day): I hadn’t expected to be drawn into Behind Closed Doors, a UK bestseller destined for the movies. I don’t like the thriller genre largely because it’s driven by plot not prose. Two months ago, I discovered a psychologically suspenseful novel with exceptionally good prose, so I’ve been open to reading more. Often disappointed by publishing hype, this psychological thriller’s hype rings true. “Unputdownable” rings so true I must warn you if you read this novel at night you might have trouble sleeping. It’s that psychologically jarring. Also true is the praise that it’s “incredibly well-written,” which brings me to why I’m blogging about it, why I got so caught up in it.

The narrator’s voice – Grace, married 18 months ago to a lawyer who never lost a case and resembles George Clooney – flows so effortlessly it feels as if she’s sitting by your side confiding her worst fears and opening up her good heart to you. Jack Angel – a surname he chose, a sadistic joke! – doesn’t have a heart, even though he’s “superficially charming” and can “strike observers as remarkably normal,” to quote one definition of a psychopath.

So, this isn’t a novel that just grips you at the opening; every page grips you. For you’re trying to figure out if someone could be this deranged and this clever to deceive not only your fiancé but everyone. You will be impressed by the intricate web of plausible deceit Jack – and British debut novelist B. A. Paris – have spun throughout. Which is why the novel scares us. Could this really happen in a marriage that seems so perfect to anyone looking in? Could a man so perfectly handsome, elegant, and gentlemanly be this emotionally sick to do what Jack does to Grace and has planned?

Leaving nothing to chance, he gives nothing away until the perfect woman comes along to execute his long-seated madness. He snaps her up in a matter of months. By the time he unveils enough of himself to her it’s too late, for he’s made sure there’s no escape.

The word perfect is effectively used, repeatedly. Perfect first appears on line 5 of the first chapter, titled “Present.” All chapters take place in the Present or Past, a clean design that has us glued to the deft and twisted machinations Jack frames, continually boxing Grace in.

Jack is the first to pronounce the word “perfect,” a response placed right on page 1 so we’re hooked, clued in something’s definitely not perfect in this household. Grace has accidently knocked into a bottle of champagne in the kitchen while dinner guests are in another room. She’s “hoping he [Jack] won’t have noticed how nervous I am.” Jack does, of course, because as we’ve already established, he doesn’t miss a trick. Why should a loving husband be pleased his newly married wife is anxious?

The dinner guests are two couples: Diane and Adam (he hailing from Jack’s law firm) and Esther and Rufus, new to the neighborhood and the group, emphasizing these are not Grace’s close friends. The dinner scene introduces the second, third, fourth, and fifth time the word perfect appears, with reference to Esther:

“I’m sure she’s been told over and over again that Grace Angel, wife of brilliant lawyer Jack Angel, is a perfect example of a woman who has it all – the perfect house, the perfect husband, the perfect lie.”

Hmm. By page 2 it’s confirmed: something’s horribly amiss!

The strongest word for the extreme opposite of perfect – nightmare, psychological torture, hell – depicts Grace’s predicament and husband. Worse, Jack is so frighteningly “brilliant” and cruel the only person who knows the marriage is a horrific lie is Grace. She finds that out on her wedding night in Thailand, revealed around page 85. That’s when it hits us Jack is clearly not who he purports himself to be. Grace is not only far from home, she’s far, far away from being “the luckiest person in the world.” Tragically, Jack’s old-fashioned manners and handsomeness wooed her. “He made me feel special, cherished, and best of all, he adored Millie.”

Millie is Grace’s younger sister, born with Down’s syndrome. Her parents didn’t want any children, let alone Millie. So when Grace meets Jack in a park when she’s with Millie and he dances with Millie, Grace falls under his wicked spell. Jack is awfully accepting of Millie, too willing to offer that when Millie turns 18 she can come live with the newlyweds. Jack knows Grace has promised she’ll take care of Millie after she’s finished her mainstream schooling (with a constant caregiver, Janice), which Grace fought hard for so Millie is never institutionalized. Up until now, it’s the reason Grace hasn’t had a serious suitor. Millie will be graduating soon. The clock is ticking.

You can’t help but admire Grace’s deep love and devotion for Millie. She grew up taking care of her. Their bond is beautiful: “I love Millie more than life itself and wouldn’t change her for the world.” It’s one of the few aspects of Grace’s story that’s beautiful.

Another could be their home which appears to be gorgeous until you get behind closed doors. Jack gave the home to Grace as a wedding present. They’d talked about her dream home, but it didn’t include being outfitted with two sets of metal gates, hidden by “high walls around it so nobody can see in.” Set in a fictional village that sounds a lot like a real village that appeals to Grace is a perfect façade. Apparently, Surrey is located in England’s wealthiest county, so Hollywood-type seclusion wouldn’t raise any red flags.

Then again, Jack has made sure there’s no one on the lookout to be suspicious. For starters, Grace’s parents will soon be moving to New Zealand. Perfect. Jack insisted Grace quit her job with the lavish Harrod’s department store. Travel requirements, he reasoned, wouldn’t be good for a fledgling marriage. She’s a fruit buyer, travels to South America. Who gives up an interesting job like that so easily? Grace, because of Millie. Perfect. Jack’s even offered to pay for Millie’s expenses until Millie comes to live with them, so why should Grace work?

Meanwhile, early on Grace allows Jack to take away her cell phone. Quickly, she loses touch with two good friends. She’s so gullible and unsuspecting because Jack is so “meticulous” in setting up that perfect lie. Losing friends, family, job, and communications would unnerve us. Not Grace, at first. She’s so focused on Millie’s welfare she loses track of her own. Maybe that seems implausible but if you’ve spent your entire life putting someone else’s needs above your own the pattern is fixed. As we put ourselves in Grace’s shoes, we see how she got herself into this nightmare, how she is Jack’s perfect wife. 

One thing you’ll love about the developmentally challenged Millie character is that she’s quite perceptive. By page 23, you sense it’s Millie who will give Grace her extraordinary “resolve.”

Can Grace extract herself from this nightmare? Before Millie becomes a victim too? How? This is what keeps us turning pages, perhaps late into the night.


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Miss Jane 2

Born Different and Special (Mercury, Mississippi, 1915-early 70s): BRAVE is the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Miss Jane. Brave girl/brave woman, bravely written, bravely published. For it’s the fictionalized story of a Mississippi farm girl born in the early 20th century with a rare, life-altering anatomical condition that’s uncomfortable to read about, inspired by the true case of the author’s great-aunt Jane. Our Jane is a “strange and beautiful child, big eyes so expressive, as if wiser or more knowing than possible.”

HEART-BREAKING is the second word that comes to mind because when your bodily and sexual functions are significantly abnormal and medical science is not advanced enough to repair those abnormalities – so different than everyone else (reportedly 1 in 20,000 are born with the condition) – engaging in normal activities and relationships is an enormous, nearly impossible mountain to climb – school, friendships, boyfriends, intimacy. So this is a SAD story about Jane’s childhood and womanhood that, for the most part, feels painfully lonely, heavy-hearted. And yet, Jane’s not mired in sadness or bitterness. Her inner strength is a gift to all of us struggling with something.

Jane’s spirit contrasts with her chronically bereft mother, her downtrodden father, and the coolness of her sister, who grew to love her because “I have to love something” – though each has their own reasons to be justifiably melancholy.

Jane’s was the home of a hard-working farm life, through the years of the Depression, in which an uncharacteristic hug from her father “sent her senses singing.” Fortunately for her, she took to farming and loved roaming the woods on the property. So, she was a “good-humored, even cheerful little child” who matured into a self-sufficient woman of remarkable acceptance of her lot in life. Miraculous, given her childhood was marked by no friends, embarrassment (diapering, soiling), and so many sacrifices. A bright child, she tried to go to school but it was untenable. Instead, she learned math helping in her father’s general store and was pleasant with the customers, mostly sharecroppers and tenants who worked the farm, which grew cotton, tobacco, corn, pecans and raised some cattle and pigs.

Watson’s prose is sensitive yet unsentimental. He’s not afraid to describe the harsh realities of Jane’s physicality – although you don’t learn of the precise medical term for Jane Chisolm’s condition until page 199. It doesn’t matter. The point is to be drawn into what Jane went through day after day, year after year, for the rest of her life. The slower pace of the novel suits the heaviness of her circumstances.

As the heavy burden of Jane’s daily living grows on us – the lengths she goes through (starving and dehydrating herself, wearing layers of slips and perfume) – we’re awed by her amazing grace. Grace is a word used often in the novel. Her sister’s name is Grace; a chapter is titled Grace in the Wilderness; and Jane “moved with a kind of natural grace, as a leaf will fall gracefully from a tree in barely a breeze.” Grace is a perfect word for the beauty, dignity, and spirituality Jane evokes for life, particularly when she loses herself in nature.

“She loved most being in the woods, with the diffused light and the quiet there. Such a stillness, with just the pecking of ground birds and forest animals, the flutter of wings, the occasional skittering of squirrels playing up and down a tree. The silent, imperceptible unfurling of spring buds into blossom. She felt comfortable there. As if nothing could be unnatural in that place, within but apart from the world.”

Two characters who touch Jane’s isolated world magnify that grace:

  • Jane’s doctor, Ed Thompson, who lives two miles from the family farm. His relationship with Jane deepens over the years, medically of course and then emotionally as he comes to care about her like his own daughter. He’s childless and for much of the novel a widower.
  • A tender, sixteen-year-old boy with blue eyes like Jane’s, Elijah Key. His self-consciousness about wearing eyeglasses almost startles us compared to what Jane endures, reminding us that how we perceive ourselves and accept our own imperfections impacts us greatly. Theirs is a brief interlude (so is her flirting with boys at a dance hall at sixteen) that offers respites of joy.

In a less eloquent way, we’re also moved by Jane’s increasingly alcoholic father who quietly feels remorseful and guilty believing it was his alcoholic transgressions that cursed his beautiful child. Jane was the last of five children, conceived late in her mother Ida’s life. By then, she’d lost two boys to illness, and her two older sons had already left home and are barely a presence. Jane’s sister also couldn’t wait to escape into town, initially working as a seamstress. For a number of years, Jane lived with her; she too could sew. Mercury, the town, is also the setting for another of the author’s novels, The Heaven of Mercury, a finalist for the National Book Award.

The heart-tugging and philosophical power of the novel asks us to dig deeply about the meaning of love. What Jane and Elijah had was pure love – not physical love but a love that transcended that. A love more extraordinary.

So another word that comes to mind when thinking about Miss Jane is UNFORGETTABLE.


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Lions 2

Legacies and Folklore – Ghosts of the Past (Colorado Eastern Plains, present-day): Poetic. That’s the first word that comes to mind reading Lions. Eloquent, melancholy, atmospheric prose that even makes welding sound beautiful. It pulls you in at the opening sentence: “If you’ve ever loved anyone, you know there’s a ghost in everything.” Actually, many ghosts haunt this mesmerizing novel about broken dreams and promises, grief and loneliness, in a “living ghost town.”

Even the town’s name is mythical, passed down through generations of pioneers who settled in the high desert plains of eastern Colorado:

“A name meant to stand in for disappointment with the wild invention and unreasonable hope by which it has been first imagined … There were never any lions. In fact there is nothing more to the place now than a hard rind of shimmering dirt and grass … Flat as hell’s basement and empty as the boundless sky above it.”

That sky is colored “heartbreak blue.” For this is a novel about all sorts of heartbreak in a ghostly landscape, with a one street downtown and a handful of businesses: garage, diner, bar, gas/grocer, and junk shop.

Still, 117 souls hung on in Lions. Why have they stayed?

Chief among those enduring souls – characters who’ll touch your heart and are at the heart of this soulful novel – are:

  • John Walker, 55, “wizard” welder, Georgianna his wife of more than twenty years, and their very serious, reserved eighteen-year-old son, Gordon, deeply attached to his father; and
  • Leigh Ransom, Gordon’s girlfriend/best friend/neighbor/the only person in Lions his age and his going-off-to-the-same-college partner in the fall; and her mother May who owns the Lucy Graves diner (named after a fabled, reclusive 1870 homesteader) where Leigh works.

Lucy Graves is one of the ghostly tales woven around the main plot. “People say they want the truth but they don’t. They want a story.” A story you get. Many, actually. Some real, some the stuff of legends. That’s because Lions is an allegorical place.

Lions could be someplace near Longmont or Ft. Collins, sites of the first sugar beet factories in the eastern part of the State built in the early 1900s when sugar was Colorado’s economic driver. I’m guessing this based on literary scenes of an abandoned sugar beet factory and the author’s acknowledgements hinting at that.

Hundreds of ghost towns are scattered throughout the West, echoes of the immigrants, Easterners, and dreamers who came westward “looking for paradise.” Some hit gold. This region’s version is the sugar beet, dubbed “white gold”. That term speaks volumes for a bountiful ecosystem, when Lions sat on the “westernmost edge of fertile prairie grassland.” Googling, I learned there are only a few places in the world that have the ideal growing conditions to sustain the sugar beet crop. Lions once did. Its soil was so loamy it was “the consistency of dense chocolate cake.” Now it’s “pale dirt so hard and dry it was no more fertile than moon rock.” The loss of this complex, precious ecosphere is a different type of heartbreak.

Leigh’s heartache is the emotional kind. “You could have called it despair, or panic, or desperation to get out.” She speaks often about an “unbearable light” that’s “refracted, diffused, reflected, and smashed and split apart.” When she gazes out her window all she sees is “a place of air and light and rock.” The allusive prose helps us imagine that sense of burning, boundless isolation.

A “photographer of isolation,” Dave Heath, recently passed away. His photographs made me realize that the only thing missing from this soaring novel are pictures of the faces of the really good souls who inhabit Lions. Are years and years of dashed hopes and barrenness etched on their faces? What does toughness and resilience look like? “Staying power,” the author calls it.

This is a way of life that’s “genius born of necessity.” Groceries, for example, arrive only monthly. So, at the diner, May serves odd concoctions of sandwiches like ham and grape jelly.

The greatest genius is the welder John Walker. The novel opens when a mysterious stranger and his dog show up one “record-breaking hot summer.” That’s 106 degrees in June, when welding means John covers his body in his sweltering garage to protect himself from the scorching blowtorch. With “myopic ceremony” he toils for hours because “people’s lives depend on a good weld.” Where does that kind of decency come from?

The stranger’s visit sets off a cascade of tragic events. The first, saddest, most consequential is John’s death. What will happen to his “first-class weld servicing facility”? Will Gordon takeover, thereby forfeit Leigh’s escape hatch and plans of going to college with him? Leigh has lost a father figure. Will she lose Gordon too? Can Gordon leave his mother, Georgie, dreamy and fragile? Much of the moody prose feels dream-like.

And yet it also conveys deep respect for something as real as metalworking – “agricultural equipment innovators and repairmen.” Thus, the novel pays tribute to our early frontier ancestors who weren’t cowboys or ranchers or farmers or miners or hunters or trappers. John’s work ethic puzzled the denizens the most. “Could have made six figures in Denver easy. Aerospace. Military. Hell. Lots of natural gas pipeline getting started in Wyoming.”

In the case of the Walker family, welding traces back more than a century, which means Lions is a novel illuminating “patterns to things.” Will Gordon feel the tug of responsibility and duty to carry on that familial tradition, or be the one to finally break it? Leigh, on the other hand, is counting the days and her savings until she can fly. “She wants the world.” Does she get it?

The townspeople believe the town is cursed. After John’s death, there’s an ugly, strange death, people get sick from the water, and then flee in numbers. (“Goodbyes didn’t come singly.”) Gordon begins disappearing for days on end, on a mysterious errand up North his father asked him to carry on before he died, the same deed John had been performing for thirty-five years. At some point, you may asking yourself if John really did play some divine role in “holding the town together by keeping the demon out.”

Whatever you believe about the events and stories supposed in Lions, one truth I’m pretty sure you’re nostalgic for is the old-fashioned code of simple human kindness represented. Nothing simple about it when times are tough. Which is why Lions move us so much. It represents the best in us.


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Amy Snow

How far will you go for friendship?  A secret? (Enderby to London to Twickenham to Bath to York England; early Victorian era, 1831–1848)

Amy Snow is a joy to read.  For all its length (576 pages, includes reader’s guide and author interview), its charming classical prose, Victorian delights, “meadows and market gardens and mansions that dream away their days,” and clipped chapters make for fast-paced reading you’re sorry ends.

Joyful too is how the novel found its way to us.  Winner of the first Richard and Judy “Search for a Bestseller” competition in the UK, their book club influential like Oprah’s.

Its seriousness is disguised in the elegant prose.  For it’s not only the story of the depths of friendship between two young women from vastly different social classes, but poignantly depicts the expectations for women in early Victorian society.  The time period is perfectly aligned historically to Queen Victoria’s assumption to power, which eventually led to challenging prevailing attitudes about “The Woman Question.”

The plot, which takes many twists and turns, centers around a spirited, eight-year-old Aurelia Vennaway who discovers an abandoned baby in the snow on the grounds of her family’s Surrey estate.  She names her “snow baby” Amy Snow.  The novel ends after Amy has been led on a clever “treasure hunt” commandeered by Aurelia through a series of letters and cryptic clues, wiser and worldlier than her seventeen orphaned years.

Aurelia comes alive for us only in Amy’s fond memories and her letters, having penned them on her deathbed.  The novel opens when she’s died at 25, not much younger than the Queen herself.

Queen Victoria, 1842
Franz Xaver Winterhalter
via Wikimedia Commons

Aurelia may have had a weak heart but hers was a “passionate heart” – an independent, intellectually-minded young woman who loved “philosophy, literature, economics, and politics.”  She might have been “considered a humanitarian visionary” if only she was born a man.  Her family tried to mold her rebellious, “bluestocking” nature, marry her off for obligation not love, but her deteriorating health ended all that.

She died with a secret she goes to extraordinary lengths to protect and share with the person she trusts the most, Amy.  She’ll only reveal it piecemeal, determined to keep her parents, Lord and Lady Celestina, in the dark for their coldness towards their only child reflects, at least in part, their grave disappointment at not bearing an heir.  Until Amy, Aurelia was a very lonely child.  She describes her parents as:

“People for whom love was a complicated affair, very closely bound up with, and easily confused with, matters of proprietorship, duty, and control.”

There’s not much to like about Aurelia’s mother, although she did let Aurelia keep the baby.  Still, she couldn’t be bothered with Amy at all, couldn’t even stand to be in the same room with her.  So Amy’s infancy was spent in a busy kitchen underfoot Cook.  Think Miss Patmore of Downton Abbey: “big-hearted, capable, and almost always there.”  As Amy grew and got more in the way, you could find her in the wheelbarrow of the gardener Robin; or in the hay of the stables under Benjamin; or tagging along Jesketh, the elderly butler.  Amy, then, knows how “to hold a currycomb and groom a horse,” “sort through apples,” and adores gardens.  When she gets older, she lives in the scullery.  Aurelia reads to her; shares her love of literature (especially Dickens, often quoted); teaches her to play piano and cards – cultures her devoted companion.

This all matters because Aurelia has great plans for Amy (“secrets and adventures.”)  The first journey takes off when the novel opens at the reading of Aurelia’s will, which means now there’s no place on the estate Amy can live.  She’s “accustomed to feeling like an inconvenience,” but without Amy she now aches for a true “sense of belonging.”

But Aurelia has other intentions for her beloved, sisterly friend:

“I have planned for my story to unfold just a little at a time, with every letter taking you farther from Hatville, farther from the ignominy of your treatment there; safer and stronger and freer.  By the fourth or fifth letter, the trail will long have run out for anyone else.  No one knows me as well as you dear.”

While I can’t reveal the clues and contents of the letters – after all this is your adventure too! – let me share a bit of what awaits you:

Letter 1 sends a grieving, unworldly Amy off to London to Entwhistle’s bookshop, where Letter 2 awaits, hidden.  She travels to a “London that demands to be taken seriously” via the miracle of steam locomotives, this being the beginning of Britain’s “Railway Age.” Leaving the bookshop, she briefly encounters the proprietor’s handsome grandson, Henry.

Letter 2 takes Amy to the village of Twickenham, as charming as its name.  Thanks to Aurelia, she’s stays at the Mulberry Lodge with three generations of the warmhearted Wister family “brimming over with good feeling.”  Waiting for Amy is a trunk Aurelia stuffed with exquisite clothes to “try to feel yourself a young woman of privilege.  The clothes will help.”  Amy is, of course, stunned and moved by all the ball gowns, in colors suitable and daring, along with “tulle purses stuffed with money.”

Here she meets Henry again, and another handsome man, Quentin, two very different men.  Garland is “polished, polite, and poised,” an impeccable dresser, whereas Henry is “all rumpled curls and sprawling limbs.”  Quentin “dazzles,” but its Henry who “warmed my heart.”  As we get to know both – Henry far more easily and likeably for he shows his tender emotions versus stuffy, “self-contained” Quentin, we see these characters are meant to symbolize two very different perspectives of a woman’s societal place, and the meaning of love.

Aurelia’s plan for Amy is becoming clearer.  She wants her to have “the wardrobe and fortune of a grand lady” to open doors for experiences and choices she wasn’t born into, never had, or dreamed of ever having.  What path does she choose?

Letter 3 takes Amy to Bath.  This time she’s pained to leave behind feelings of family and happiness, but she must find the resolve for Aurelia.  The ancient city brings a dramatic turn for here she’s to stay with Mrs. Ariadne Riverthorpe, a hardened, all-mighty 80-year old with a biting tongue and a mind of her own.  As the story evolves, you’ll see she’s something else too, something that gets to the heart of the story.

Lovely prose charms us with descriptions of gardens as “earth and apples,” earth as “rainbow and raindrop,” stables as “dust and gleaming.”  If we squint real hard, we can see the snowdrops, “daisied grass,” “whirling skirts,” “brush of ladybirds,” we can taste the tipsy cake, and hear York’s minister bells.

The wonder of historical fiction is to authentically transport us in time and place.  Tracy Rees beautifully evokes an “elegant and flawless at face value” British Victorian society.  With the same finesse, she shows us how “bumpy and biting behind the façade” that society could be.


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A Small Indiscretion 3

A Small IndiscretionThe Legacy of Self-Destructive Behavior (San Francisco, CA 2012; London, Paris, Ireland 1989):  “What happens to a marriage?” Do we marry out of a “great capacity for love, or only great greediness and need”?  When does love ebb into “habit”?  When does a transgression cross the line for forgiveness?  Above are some questions Jan Ellison pushes in her seductive debut novel, A Small Indiscretion.  Small in the title among the deceptions, as the themes tackled are anything but.

Tuck this factoid away as you rip through the pages: Ellison won an O’ Henry Prize for her very first short story.  So as she cunningly unwinds what she calls the “threads” of her confessional story, written as a letter to her 21-year-old son, Robbie, who is in a medically induced coma after a serious car accident, even when you think you’ve got things figured out, you’re in for … well, an O’ Henry ending.

Does this classify as mystery genre vs. suspense?  Literary fiction vs. commercial?  These distinctions are fuzzy to me.  Pin me down, I’d hedge my bets.  Tag it literary suspense.  The prose is exceptionally good and provocative, bridging literary and commercial.  Named a “Best of 2015” by the San Francisco Chronicle (newly released in trade paperback), it’s the most psychologically suspenseful, literary novel I’ve blogged about.

Don’t you love it when a novel grabs you at the opening sentence?  “London, the year I turned twenty” is the kick-off and then page 109 circles back to: “In London, I turned twenty.”  The author artfully moves back and forth in time, tying a sordid “archaeological period” to a respectable present, connecting a tempestuous “sad past” to what seemed to be a stable, happy married life until Robbie’s accident:

“Where does the thread begin for you?” writes Annie Black to Robbie.  “Where does it begin for your father?  When did his seamless happiness begin to unravel?”

Annie asks these boldfaced questions at 41, but the entangled answers necessitate delving back two decades when she was working in London.  The author worked in London too when she was Annie’s age; she took notes that inspired a novel penned years later.  All Annie has is her memory and 13 beguiling poems (“moonlight and whispers”) she’s saved in a hatbox and not forgotten. So she wonders, as we might, about her veracity colored by time and shame.  Yet she shares plenty of painful regrets and immoral admissions about her “self-indulgence,” egged on by her dependence on alcohol to let loose so she could feel confident and beautiful thus loved. (“If I am not beautiful, how can I be loved?”)

In a short, unnamed historical prologue, we’re introduced to an insecure Annie who buys bright, cheap gauzy scarfs to look “arty or sophisticated” at the London Victoria underground station, near where she’s living.  She’s having an affair with her married boss, Malcolm Church, an engineer twice her age.  His wife Louise is fragile and temperamental; their 10-year-old daughter, Daisy, is away at boarding school.  The son of Malcolm’s friend, Patrick Ardghal, a photographer from Dublin, is living in a cottage behind their home.  Annie is also having an affair with Patrick.  It’s Patrick who writes those lovely, enigmatic poems and lives in the moment.  The two men couldn’t be more different. Patrick’s stylish. His is a “thrown-together elegance,” whereas Malcolm is what-you-see-what-you-get, old-fangled.  Annie’s drawn to the older man, I think, as the father figure (an alcoholic) who abandoned her; the other arouses her artsy side. Both inflame a nerve aching to be carefree. Who will know?  She’s so far away from home.  All that in five pages.

Chapter One opens with another hook: “It’s not always wise to assume that just because the surface of the world appears undisturbed, life is where you left it.”  It’s September 5, 2011, a date chosen I suspect to tell us something very bad is about to happen.  Indeed it does.

A photo of Malcolm, Louise, Annie, and Patrick at the White Cliffs of Dover before they boarded a ferry to Paris to spend a momentous Christmas together (not the kind of romantic Paris you may be envisioning) has arrived for Annie, jolting her present world.  Who sent it?  Why now?  It’s an arresting photo given the hidden web of the foursome and an exposure technique called “solarization,” Patrick is known to have used.  It creates “dissonance,” further highlighting the internal strife Annie already saw.

Port of Dover
By Nessy-Pic (Own Work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Beyond the “love triangle” of Annie and Malcolm and Patrick, Louise is also sexually involved with Patrick. A “love square”?  This one sanctioned by Malcolm to assuage Louise’s “midlife malaise.”  She’s a dreadful nag, so he was kidding himself it would make a difference.  Theirs is a marriage that incites Annie to often examine a “persistent failure of kindness in a marriage.”

Including, sadly, her own.  Four days before Robbie’s accident, Annie confessed to her husband Jonathan about the so-called “small indiscretion.”  You’ll have to guess what that might be and when it happened.  Not the ideal time to find the couple thrown together, more like camped out together, at the paradoxically named Mermaid Inn, near the hospital poor Robbie lies in, while Annie’s estranged parents nobly unite to care for their younger daughters, Polly, 6, and Clara, 9.

Jonathan Gunnlaugsson is also Irish, like Patrick.  They met on a different ferry crossing the Irish Sea when Annie fled Paris. Something happened in Paris you’ll learn of in due course. Imagine, though, fleeing two relationships and then rapidly falling into another one.  She and Jonathan travel together – Nepal and India – until Annie has news that causes them to abort the trip.  Soon after, old-fashioned doctor Jonathan who grew up on a farm in Wisconsin proposes to Annie, launching her transformation into a sober, good adult.

That’s when Part I, Annie’s selfish, worrying-about-me period, ends.  Part II still shifts back to that unstable era but now its heart is motherhood, selfless and worrying, especially about Robbie, understandably.  Robbie has so much promise: a science scholar from Northwestern University doing an optical computing internship at Berkeley, headed to Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology when tragedy struck.

One of the consequences of the accident is medical proof Jonathan’s not his father.  Robbie, if he pulls through, doesn’t know that.  Who is his father?  Malcolm?  Patrick?  Ellison drives home there’s no “escaping without consequence.”

One “thread” woven into Annie’s character is her artsy-ness.  For the past fourteen years, she’s the proud owner of an offbeat lighting business in San Francisco, Salvaged Light, recycling old fixtures and then turning them into “one-of-a-kind” treasures.  An older couple that managed the store has left; soon a new tenant, Emme Greatrex, occupies the upstairs loft, convincing Annie to let her work in the store in exchange for reduced rent.

Emme is a bit of a mystery.  She’s blond and model-like, a bohemian type who dresses in cowboy boots and gold fishnet tights.  A flirt, as in flirted with Robbie.  As in she was driving that fateful car; escaped unscathed and then disappeared.

We don’t dwell on Emme’s miraculous fate. We’re glued to Robbie’s crisis and the enormity of reverberating effects.  What happens to Robbie?  What happens to his parents’ marriage?  What happens to all the threads that have come undone?

Light is another authorial thread.  Robbie’s interested in “light sources.”  Annie’s business centers on light.  Will Robbie see the light of his parentage?  When does the reader see the light?  Ah, remember that O’ Henry ending.


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Last Ride to Graceland 2

“Love Me Tender” – A mother, a daughter, Elvis and a Southern journey (Beaufort SC to Macon GA to Fairhope AL to Tupelo MS to Memphis TN; daughter’s trip in 2015, mother’s late seventies): Summer’s coming and I’m in a Southern state of mind. So let’s take a “blues and rockabilly” road trip down South searching for Elvis, and a whole lot more.

We’re not taking off from Virginia where I live. It’s the “shallow South,” says Cory Beth, one of our two female Last Ride to Graceland narrators. We’re setting off from the “Old South,” from Beaufort, South Carolina “so beautiful it hurts,” where Cory lives and sings. She’s 37, or as Cory perceives herself, a “coming-on-forty loser who lives in a trailer and plays waterfront bars and sleeps with the wrong men.”  Whatever you think of Cory, I’ll bet you’ll be rooting for her.

Our destination is Memphis, Tennessee. In case there’s anyone left on this planet who doesn’t know, this is where Elvis Presley’s mansion, Graceland, sits like a king. We could take a direct route, make it in one long 10-hour day. Pack for five days though for Cory intends to meander, allowing us to traverse “clichés about the angry South” and some of its “fairyland” scenery. Somewhere along our route we’ll cross the “invisible line between the South and The South,” as we travel through the “acceptability of Georgia,” to the “anxiety of Alabama,” and “then the complete throwing-in-the-towel-ness of Mississippi.”

Elvis Presley, 1970
By Ollie Atkins, chief White House photographer at the time, via Wikimedia Commons

Cory may be acting on impulse and gut, but she’s making this trip and following this roundabout itinerary on a strong hunch and a few clues. “Born 7 months, 9 days after my momma left Graceland,” she thinks Elvis is her father. At 18, her mother, Laura Berry, was a backup singer in Elvis’ touring entourage, one of eight singers, four white, four black. Elvis called her Honey Bear. That was the last year of Elvis’ iconic life, 1976 to 1977, a period “between the hippie years and disco years.”

So our journey moves back and forth in time, told in Cory and Honey’s fictionalized Southern voices. The Honey chapters are trips down memory lane, when Elvis captured America by storm and then “Elvis did such a good job of breaking America’s heart.” He was the “first artist to sing like all of America, not just half of it. Proof that he had come to bring us happiness and heartache in the same spin of the turntable.” Honey’s roller-coaster year reflected that too: from the highs of learning “how to glitter” to the lows of seeing “what happens when a poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, gets all the money and sex and fame in the world and still isn’t happy.”

All this means Kim Wright’s fourth novel poignantly dishes out Southern soul and winning rhythmic prose that I can’t stop quoting, as she pays tribute to Elvis at 42 (the last year of his life, the same age his mother Gladys died, part of his vulnerabilities), down to imagining the last tragic moments of his lonesome life even though he was “constantly surrounded by people,” including Honey at Graceland. The music you’ll hear brings us to “the kind of music that gave him his start … Like he was circling back. Like he knew he didn’t have long.”

Before we head off, a few more things to know about Cory and Laura/Honey. They both look like Priscilla Presley. Laura was a preacher’s daughter, so she had (and Cory has) what Elvis had: a “gospel tremor in his voice.” Here’s how Kim Wright movingly describes that sound:

“It’s the voice of anybody who started out in the church or maybe even just in the South, the voice of someone who can’t even say the goddam word home without lifting the note just a little bit right at the very end, as hopeful as a dog at a rest stop, sure as shouting that waiting out there somewhere, somehow, is an angel just for them.”

Key to the timing of our trip is seven months ago Laura died a “ragin’ Cajun kind of cancer that takes you from daiquiris to the funeral home in five months flat.” The novel opens when the “good man” that raised Cory, the only father she’s known, Bradley Ainsworth, is on his annual fishing trip and seems to have forgotten his waders. Could Cory ship them to Florida? An odd, expensive request. Cory suspects he planned this intentionally, because when she enters his fishing shed, which she never had an occasion to do, it’s not just big old waders left behind but a perfectly preserved 1973 Stutz Blackhawk – Elvis’ car – the car he actually drove on August 16, 1977, the last night of his life. Cory figures Honey drove it back home when she fled Graceland – pregnant. Cory guesses Bradley has decided it’s finally time she discovers the truth about her biological father.

Elvis’ 1973 Stutz Blackhawk
By Thomas R Machnitzki (, via Wikimedia Commons

So climb into this rare “muscle car.” Slide into its soft, red leather seats. Gawk at what looked like “real twenty-four carat gold” interior trim (it was 18-carat). Turn on the eight-track player. Hear a melody reminiscent of “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” crooned by Otis Redding. It’s marked demo. Recognize two of the three harmonizing voices: the King’s “stripped-down version from the early years, even before he started recording at Sun Records” – one of many Elvis tidbits revealed on our trip. The other familiar voice is Honey’s; the unfamiliar one Cory assumes is her mama’s backup singer friend, Marilee. Notice the trash in the car. A BBQ napkin from a place called Doozy’s. A receipt from Tupelo, Elvis’ birthplace. Clues – and a car that makes you feel like the “whole world is vibrating” – guide the roads Cory will be taking. Pure, escapist fiction.

Historical Marker
By Spudgun67, via Wikimedia Commons

Time to let Cory take the wheel. Be confident Cory can competently steer this “big 425 engine” that guzzles gas (the real car got 8 miles to the gallon) along a fortuitous path. The strangers she meets, the coincidences that happen are planted for more good reasons.

Soon you’ll be traveling with another companion: a coon dog Cory names Lucy. Not a typical name for a male dog. Then again, this isn’t an ordinary trip.

Since the point of a car adventure is the unexpected journey, you’re on your own from here, like Cory was. She set off to find her father; discovers some of Honey, some of herself. So sit back, and enjoy the memorable ride.


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The Blue Bath 4

A Twenty-Year Obsession: An artist and his muse (London, present; Paris, twenty years earlier): Every day for 15 years, American artist Andrew Wyeth secretly sketched and painted 240 representations of one woman, Helga Testorf. A stash that took the art world by storm when the “Helga Pictures” were fully revealed in 1986 to his wife and business partner, Betsy, who then sold them at Wyeth’s request for millions and a year later exhibited around the country. Created at a neighbor’s farmhouse, it’s amazing even Betsy was kept in the dark about their existence. Far more incredulous is that one model inspired and sustained one artist for so many days, hours, and years. In 2009 after Wyeth’s death, Betsy bequeathed his studio to the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, PA, where visitors can tour and immerse themselves in Wyeth’s bucolic world, which my husband and I recently did.

I’ve been thinking about Wyeth/Helga’s extraordinary artistic collaboration for this post: how it compares and contrasts to the fictional artist’s two decades-long obsession with his muse, rhythmically imagined in The Blue Bath, Mary Waters-Sayer’s hypnotic debut. The artist, Daniel Blake, is British. Like Wyeth, he’s secretive; we, and more importantly, the model who was his lover, knew nothing of his past. She’s Kat Lind, an American expat living in London, as the author did for twelve years.

In 1987, the Helga I saw at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC was pensive and detached, with radiant reddish-brown braids. Kat reminds me of Helga. She feels like an onlooker, and has red hair. So I thought Wyeth/Helga might be the inspiration for the novel.

Not so, says the author in an email anticipating its release, in which she discusses her inspiration. She “couldn’t shake” a portrait she noticed in the window of a London art gallery. She wondered:

“What it must feel like to be the subject of a portrait, to be examined so closely. And then I started to think about the artist and about the act of looking at someone that deliberately. It seemed so intimate.”

In Helga’s case, obviously, she was keenly aware she was the subject of prolonged study. And, since some paintings are nudes, speculation about how intimate artist and model were lingers. As for Kat: Imagine the shock of attending an exhibition at a chic Mayfair gallery twenty years after you broke off your affair with a struggling artist you met in Paris at nineteen (while studying French literature at the Sorbonne), only to discover he had not stopped painting and imagining you all these years? And, as the gloriously blue lit Parisian bathtub of the novel’s title suggests, Kat and Daniel were quite intimate. (“How rare that intimacy,” Kat reflects.) “Not since Titian has there been an artist more enamored with a redhead.” The point is dark redheaded Kat stands out. Nearing forty, will anyone recognize her?

Why this matters – the premise of the novel – is Kat never told her husband Jonathan about Daniel, wanting him to be “hers alone. Sacred and apart.” Jonathan is a made-it-big darling of the British business world, sought after by paparazzi, voracious for news about a celebrity who single-handedly “rekindled the Internet economy in Britain.” Jonathan disputes that attribution but there’s no disputing he’s an extremely rich and well-connected man. Those connections are to the very same rich people investing in art, who are mulling about the artist’s publicized one-woman retrospective. The wishing-for-greatness artist and his coarse business manager, Martin Whittaker, have kept the model’s identity secret, fueling the mystique and the valuation of the artworks.

The reader marches to the same beat as the buzz at the gallery: “Who is she and what is she to the artist?” Your clues are found in the melancholy, lyrical, seductive prose, wonderfully matched to evoke the fragile beauty of art and Kat’s delicate, elusive character. Is this what the artist saw in Kat that captivated him so?

The wistful prose conveys Kat’s unsettled soul. Like the paintings and the artist, she’s mysterious, ephemeral, vulnerable. Keep in mind that when the novel opens she’s grieving the loss of her mother. She’s just returned to London after her death, to a new home that’s being renovated in a super-luxurious neighborhood near Holland Park. This is the kind of wealth where your neighbors drive Bentleys, where you live across the street from an embassy. “The size of the house, the financial commitment, the scope of the renovation – all of these things had led her to allow herself to believe they were putting down roots.” So the disquietude we sense in Kat is meant to sound rootless, haunting.

She feels more than sad and lonely, she feels invisible. Jonathan is constantly traveling. In fact, he doesn’t physically enter the novel until the end. We judge him via absence and phone calls. He’s in China on a pressing business deal but this is his third try at negotiating it, so how crucial was it to leave his mourning wife alone? How sensitive to let her return by herself to an unfamiliar home undergoing unnerving construction? To insist their young son, Will, stay with his grandparents to give Kat a rest? Kat, in her dazed state, has too much free time on her own.

After Will, she stopped working. After Paris, she chose a vastly different path – business school. It led to meeting Jonathan, which means Kat knows those same business associates at the galleria opening. It also means, as we slowly put two and two together, that the harsh corporate world was not the best path for someone who had an eye for gentle beauty (photography, in Paris), when her life was all about “spirit and possibility.” We’re told that after ten years of marriage, hers is “comfort and familiarity.” If there was passion, it sounds gone, or silently crying out for rekindling.

How much over those twenty years Kat has thought about those heady Paris days when she barely left Daniel’s studio we don’t know. But ever since Kat learned Daniel Blake was in London and about to have a showing of his art she’s flooded with memories, woven back and forth throughout the novel. The drifting prose, her drifting thoughts, lets us feel she’s adrift. Paris left a “hole that she could feel inside her.”

Attending the opening was a risk, a bit reckless. It seems she’s drawn there by a force outside her control. Once she sees herself spread about the gallery’s walls, realizes she’s been meticulously studied over so many years, she’s unhinged. But she also grasps she has not been invisible to Daniel. A dangerous lure for someone so naked. As Kat’s mind and heart drift back to Paris, to “nostalgia and regret for a delicate and vanished time,” the reader anticipates where her story may go. The reader is right, and the reader is wrong. As the canvas gets filled in, the ending takes you by surprise.

A portending scene of Kat visiting the prestigious architectural firm overseeing the historic renovation of her home is a metaphor, I think, for perceiving Kat. Like us, the architect senses her fragility, her uncertainty, concludes “sometimes it is that which remains unfinished that remains the most beautiful.” Preservation of the palatial home is reduced to its “essential elements.”

As the story reaches its conclusion, Kat too is stripped down to preserving her most fundamental elements. To that which is indispensable.


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The Excellent Lombards 2

Wishing time stood still – On an apple farm in Wisconsin (1990s to 2001): The Wisconsin Apple Growers Association reports that of its 72 counties, 46 grow apples on 7,400 acres yielding 56 million pounds of apples yearly.  Jane Hamilton lives on one of those apple farms, on some of those fertile acres.  So does the fourth-generation of Lombards she beautifully fictionalizes in her elegant seventh novel – an old-fashioned love letter to bygone youth and farming before the full forces of change (technological, economic, environmental, social, cultural) swept in.

The brilliance of this novel is the narrator’s youthful voice.  A point-of-view that’s a mix of adulation, innocence, intellect, and a melancholy searching-for-answers.  Thus 12-to-16-year old Mary Frances Lombard brings poignancy and tenderness and nuance to serious issues that might otherwise come across as preachy or certain.  Hers is an emotional struggle borne out of a fierce devotion to the “ancient gathering up of the field.”  An inability to accept the changes descending on an historic family farm as agriculture and the world grow increasingly complex in the nineties, leading up to 9/11 when life changed for all of us.

You need not have grown up on an apple farm (or any farm, for this one also raises sheep) in the Midwest to relate to the nostalgia of lost childhoods, when children were content to spend idle time outdoors, which is why the novel is perfectly set pre-Internet explosion, cell phones, social media.  Adding depth to the woebegone tone is Frankie’s “reverence for the family history,” for “unity of purpose,” which pulls us into the power of place, of home, as she contemplates “if a place might make you more than you were?”  Even if ours was not an idyllic childhood, we wish we had one.  So we empathize with Frankie’s joy, love, and emotions – her confusion, denial, resentment, disillusionment – as she discovers “children aren’t always triumphant or heroic like in the books.”  (The importance of reading a lovely element; her mother an award-winning librarian.)

For a compact novel (273 pages) about old-fashioned ways, it’s impressive how much is packed into The Excellent Lombards that’s anything but simple.  Each chapter an episode, a growing-up scene, a life lesson.  With each, we sense unrest and the winds of change blowing.

Tension begins as soon as the novel opens.  Mary Frances, or Frankie (she’s also goes by Francie, Imp, Marlene, and MF depending on who does the calling and what age she’s at) re-counts a long car ride to visit her grandmother in Minnesota with her brother William, whom she adores (“Why did he always have to be patient, so patient and kind?”), when they were about 7 and 8.  Frankie overheard her parents, Jim and Nellie, arguing.  Frankie idolizes her hard-working, dependable, old-fangled storytelling father but has a cooler alliance toward her mother, who doesn’t work on the farm.  That’s key, I think, to their strained relationship (although she recognizes her mother “had something”), and differing parental attitudes about the future of the farm.  This incident is the first time Frankie’s “frightened in real terms about the farm,” an overarching theme as her immediate Lombard family is not the sole “heirs to a noble business.”

Ownership is complex.  Frankie’s Lombard foursome own only half the orchard property.  The other half is owned by her father’s cousin, Sherwood, whose always lived and worked on the farm whereas Jim previously spent only summers there until he married.  The animosity between these two opposites – one a “prophet of routine” and the other an impractical, wacky inventor – permeates throughout.

Three houses are spread out on the farm.  One is an 11-bedroom “manor house” where Sherwood’s family resides: wife, Dolly, and their two children, Amanda and Adam, similar in age to Frankie and Will, so they’re playmates after-school.  Even though Frankie’s family owns three-quarters of this house, they don’t live in it.  Theirs is a “clapboard heap” circa 1860.  The different characteristics of the two homes says a lot about the differences between these two families.  Frankie’s is “not unseemly or puffed up,” whereas Dolly envisions something superior than farming for her children.  (Actually, so does Frankie’s mother.)  Think of these homes as “divided kingdoms,” like Frankie and Will do.  They even made up fantasy names for them: Velta versus Volta.

The remaining one-fourth ownership of the manor belongs to reclusive, intimidating Aunt May Hill, in her sixties or seventies, no one seems to even know that, who lives generally left alone upstairs.  She may be odd but she’s the “farm’s gold” because she can fix all the old machinery forever breaking down.

The third home on the farm is an ancient stone cottage, a nod to the history of apple farming in the State dating back to the 1800s.  Gloria, the “hired woman,” resides in it.  She’s far more than that.  She’s “Wife Number Two” and a surrogate mother since Gloria, Jim, and Frankie spend so much time with this “welder woman to Nordic princess.”  Frankie does not want to let go of her.  Events transpire otherwise.  Like children do, Frankie internalizes, wonders if she’s shown Gloria enough love.

Besides Frankie, the other central character anchoring the novel is the orchard itself.  “All those beauties were a reminder of the grace and good breeding of the Lombard clan.”  The property includes “three barns, four hundred acres of forest and arable fields and marsh, the sheep pastures, and the apple trees.”  The apple barn is where cider is made (14-hour days), where customers come to buy apples and soak up nostalgia that takes in a yard of old-timey farm implements dating back to 1917.  You can picture it.  Wish you were picking delicious heirloom varieties right about now?

Frankie believes the orchard is the “most important feature of the world.”  Certainly hers.  It drives her stories about: hay baling; the arrival of Sherwood’s brother who speaks like a CIA spy with talk of far flung places, the World Trade bombings, jihad (“no one in our neighborhood in 1993 was using the word”); the National Geography Bee, the idea of her new “four-five split” elementary school teacher from Chicago, Mrs. Kraselnik, who is Jewish and therefore offers diversity to this homogenous community.  Frankie adores her elegance and moral goodliness (“everything we know and are, boys and girls, begins with the land in your community”); Blossom Day (“blossom to blossom to blossom the orchard lit with a snowy brilliance”); another visiting cousin, this one a college-educated, “Slow Food, locavoring, hipper-than-Alice-Waters pioneer,” who poses another threat to the farm; the Farmland Preservation Committee pitting rural spirit against suburban sprawl; her desire to join the Future Farmers of America in contrast to Will’s college ambitions; and yes more.

Frankie is 16 when the novel ends.  How will she turn out?  Readers might well encourage Hamilton to write a sequel!  Will Frankie grow up to “put good in the world” as Mrs. Kraselnik taught her?  You too will be charmed by a teacher we wish challenged us when we were young: “Why, boys and girls, are we on this earth?  What in the world are we doing here?”


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The Last Painting of Sara de Vos 1

Readers of this blog may have noticed sometimes it takes a month or more to find a book/prose I love to blog about. These past few weeks have been a literary bonanza!

Real and fake, art’s enduring power — three lives, three continents, three centuries (Dutch Golden Age mid-1600s, Manhattan late 1950s, Australia 2000): Dominic Smith is a fictionist who paints beautiful images with words. His brushstrokes are so smooth, deft, and believable you’ll think the “landmark painting” at the heart of his fourth historical novel is the real thing. You can easily picture the “cult classic” hanging in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where the largest collection of Dutch art from its golden era is housed. Doesn’t the art specialist’s elegant summation of the seductive image, which opens the novel, seem straight out of an exhibition or sales catalogue?

At the Edge of a Wood (1636)
A winter scene at twilight. The girl stands in the foreground against a silver birch, a pale hand pressed to its bark, staring out at the skaters on the frozen river. There are half a dozen of them, bundled against the cold, flecks of brown and yellow cloth floating above the ice. A brindled dog trots beside a boy as he arcs into a wide turn. One mitten in the air, he’s beckoning to the girl, to us. Up along the riverbank, a village is drowsy with smoke and firelight, flush against the bell of the pewter sky. A single cataract of daylight at the horizon, a meadow dazzled beneath a rent in the clouds, then the revelation of her bare feet in the snow. A raven – quilled in violet and faintly iridescent – caws from a branch beside her. In one hand she holds a frayed black ribbon, twined between slender fingers, and the hem of her dress, visible beneath a long gray shawl, is torn. The girl’s face is mostly in profile, her dark hair loose and tangled about her shoulders. Her eyes are fixed on some distant point – but is it dread or the strange halo of winter twilight that pins her in place? She seems unable, or unwilling, to reach the frozen riverbank. Her footprints lead back through the snow, toward the wood, beyond the frame. Somehow, she’s walked into this scene from outside the painting, trudged onto the canvas from our world, not hers.

Smith also fools us into thinking he’s an expert in art restoration and forgery (he went to art school). The language of an Old World conservator or fabricator — lead-tin yellow, rabbit pelts, gesso, impasto, mastic, copal – colors the prose.

I also marveled at the assuredness of evoking “sense of place” in distant settings and time periods — Amsterdam’s ancient canals and “Frisian sense of forbearance” and Australia’s modern harbors and changing attitudes toward women in the arts – swiftly moving the reader back and forth in time and place effortlessly. (I’m presuming here that Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Brooklyn, circa late 50’s, the third backdrop and timeframe, is more knowable). Research is one thing, clearly on display, but juggling and blending time/place traveling chapters seamlessly is another. Sure enough, I discovered Smith lived in Amsterdam and was born in Australia, which helps to throw light on his writerly gifts.

Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait c. 1630
via Wikimedia Commons

Smith tells us he imagined Sara de Vos as an amalgamation of a few Dutch women artists from the 1600s including: Judith Leyster, chief among them, as she was the first woman admitted to the governing, highly influential Guild of St. Luke and for 200 years her work had been attributed to her husband, Frans Hals; and Sarah van Baalbergen, whose art did not endure. (Interestingly, Barent was the name of both husbands of the real/imaginary Sarah/Sara.)

Prior to reading the novel, the only Dutch artists from that luxuriant era, a “fluke of rheumatic temperament and history,” I was familiar with were Rembrandt and Vermeer. I’m not sure which statistic is more amazing: the 5 to 10 million works of art estimated to be produced during this renaissance, or the 1% or less likely to have survived?

Heartening, at least fictionally, is the suggestion that another landscape painted by a 1600s-Dutch woman still exists. Though even that’s a question mark, one of many, since these artworks were typically unsigned, and it was not the custom for women to paint landscapes. Still lifes and portraits yes, but women were too housebound to have idle time to wander about outdoors to paint moody scenery. Is the attribution to Sara de Vos correct? If so, who might the ghostly girl be? What if Sara created other landscapes? Might any still exist?

The historical inspiration for this “godly and omniscient” canvas came from the ice-skating scenes of Hendrick Avercamp, an early Dutch landscape painter. (Also heard on the author-interview podcast cited above.)

Winter Landscape by Hendrick Avercamp, first half 17th c., via Wikimedia Commons

Treatment of women is a recurring theme. First with Sara, whose harsh circumstances in the Old Country unfold a likely scenario that could have led to her extraordinary artistic license, working under the strict auspices of that almighty Guild. Fast forward centuries later to Ellie Shipley, art historian/restorer/one-time forger of a “meticulous fake,” who immigrated to New York from her native Australia and London’s Courtauld Institute of Art to gain respect in a male-dominated field. In the late fifties, when she commits the art crime, she’s in her twenties doing her dissertation at Columbia on Baroque Dutch women painters, drawn to the progressive school’s two-female faculty. How she came to copy the painting in her squalid Brooklyn apartment that smelled so badly from the glues, paints, and varnishes she concocts to mimic the Dutch masters becomes a window into the techniques, obsession, and mindset of a painstaking forger, whose “dominion is theater and subtext.” Forty-years later, when we meet her again teaching at Sydney University and curating an exhibit on her specialty, she’s achieved stature. But her soul has suffered the burden of her shameful deed all these years.

Revenge for stealing the painting takes on a deceitful, fervent life of its own that plays out with a feminist angle, conceived by our main male character: fortyish, wealthy, New York patent attorney Martin de Groot, of Dutch ancestry. He inherited the painting from his father, passed down generations. The affecting painting hung over his Upper East Side penthouse bed since the 1920s. “Stolen the same week the Russians put a dog into space,” someone replaced it with a near-exacting replica perhaps right under Marty’s nose. Events are presented as possible scenarios as to when the heist may have occurred. The counterfeit is so masterful it takes Marty six months to notice it isn’t the real deal, whereupon he hires a private investigator to uncover who probably forged it. It takes Marty another forty years, aged into his eighties, to catch up with the forger.

At first, righting the wrong consumes the victim, who in a different way is as two-faced, artful, and immoral as the perpetrator. Forty-years without his beloved painting and the remorse of his deception doesn’t destroy him but it has taken a big toll. To understand the “existential meaning” of the painting to Marty and Ellie is to understand the man he did not become and the woman she strove to be.

While we can certainly pass judgment on Marty’s and Ellie’s actions, with the benefit of insight I think the overarching point is how much a magnificent piece of art can affect lives. An exhibition about a masterpiece, penned by a master.


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