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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