Cocoa Beach 2

Roaring passions, Roaring times (Cocoa Beach, Florida June/July 1922 and 1924 epilogue; WWI France 1917-1918): “Cocoa, Florida. It sounds so lovely, doesn’t it? Just saying the name gives you a marvelous, exotic charge, however great your troubles.” So says our lovely, marvelous, troubled protagonist – Virginia Fortescue Fitzwilliam, married two years, estranged three from Simon, her British Army surgeon husband – of the exotic, perilous, booming, rum-running southern Florida locale in Beatriz Williams’ twists-and-turns newest historical novel, Cocoa Beach.

Keep your wits about you for more than romance is at stake, and things are not what they seem to be. Even innocent, white-gloved Virginia admits she’s “an old hand at disguising.” She’s not the only one. All the characters are unreliable. Whom to trust? Believe? That’s the crux of Virginia’s problem. The reader’s lure.

Stay especially on your toes for you don’t just read a Beatriz Williams novel, you gulp it in. You inhale her distinctly delicious prose the way single-parent Virginia, with a “hole in the center of my soul,” breathes in “great lungfuls of Evelyn,” her almost three-year old daughter. Similar to how I consumed four of her earlier novels: The Hundred Summers and her Schuyler sisterly trio, The Secret Life of Violent Grant, Along the Infinite Sea, Tiny Little Thing. The danger in reading quickly is you too could become an unreliable narrator, which is why I didn’t blog about any.

This time around I vowed to read in my note-taking, blogger’s mode. Slows you down but you catch things you might otherwise gloss over because really good historical fiction doesn’t whack you over the head; it blends details cunningly, leaving you wanting more. Do a little googling and you find yourself fascinated by how clever the plot and prose integrate two historical time periods. (The prolific author attests to this challenge on her blog.)

Who knew of southern Florida’s notorious bootlegging history? Bootlegging, I discovered, differs from rum-running; the former over land, the latter over the sea. Makes remote, mangrove-sheltered Cocoa Beach a smart setting for capturing the Wild West of the Prohibition era. Heard of Carl Fisher, Father of Miami Beach? He transformed a barrier island into a major resort destination? Heady tidbits that factor in the story.

Another interesting fictional ingredient is the critical role the automobile played in Florida’s real estate fever in the early twenties, which also made possible heroic, life-saving during WWI. The first vehicle comes to life with an intrepid Virginia at twenty steering Hunka Tin – the Model-T ambulance she drove for the American Red Cross cramped beside alluring, golden-gray haired, thirty-five-year old Simon. Or, in the author’s words: “I met my husband in the least romantic setting possible: a casualty clearing station in northern France in the middle of February.”

Ford Model T Ambulance
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

The second car is a jazzy “sky blue Twin-Six Packard Roaster,” featured in the Cocoa tale. Repainted, it might resemble this 1916 model:

 

Packard Twin Six Model 1-35 1916
By Buch-t [CC BY-SA 3.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons

Virginia learned to drive on her “grim, reclusive,” inventor Father’s Model-T when they lived in Manhattan. He is among her troubles, why she’s had “a lot of experience with “symptoms of shock” and “disguise.” Very early on, we’re told he’s on trial for a horrendous crime. As to its nature, a source of her psychic pain, you’ll discover soon enough.

The Cocoa Beach chapters begin when Virginia is twenty-five and has already lost a lot: her mother at eight; younger sister, Sophie, whom she adores, to serve her country; and Simon, whom she’s left after just two years of marriage from 1917 to 1919.

The Epilogue is a letter dated 1919, one of many Simon wrote Virginia desperate to win her back, defending himself against a “despicable crime.” What that is and whether he’s been falsely or justly accused the reader must figure out. Understandably, Virginia’s perceptions and temperament have been colored by the betrayal of the two most important men in her life. Naturally, we’re sympathetic to her plight, whereas the others we vacillate about, almost to the end.

Dating Simon’s introductory letter tips us off that the last time Virginia saw him was three years ago, in June 1922 when Virginia arrives in Cocoa Beach, opening with:

“Someone has cleared the ruins away, but you can still see a house burned to the ground here, not long ago. The earth is black and charred, and the air smells faintly of soot.”

Not long ago means only four months ago. Virginia has come to this “ruined house on the sea” to see for herself what happened on this gorgeous spot and what’s happening at 1,400 acres of the Maitland citrus plantation, a Phantom shipping company (love that name!) and the Phantom Hotel, all she’s inherited having been informed Simon perished in that blaze. That fetching roadster was his too.

Yet all through the novel Virginia feels “the cool suggestion of Simon’s presence.” Might Simon still be alive? An unrecognizable body was dragged from that inferno; all that was recognizable was his ring.

“Everything you seek is here” is another reoccurring suggestion. Not true at all. Hints are dropped along the way, but they deceive us. A game is afoot and we’re game as the prose pulls us in, pulling no punches, infused with an evocative sense of time and place and, notably, smells. Air steeped in the citrusy scents of orange blossoms; a shipper’s “dockside perfume, hemp and tar and salt and warm wood” mixed with something else “sweet and spicy” (ah, those phantom ships!); putrid odors on the battlefields; “grease and wet stone and melancholy” at the chateau Virginia was initially posted at in war-torn France; the “sleepy scent of my husband’s skin”; and poetically, the “smell of hope.”

Virginia hopes “maybe the new architecture of this house represented a change in Simon himself.” Contrary to the Captain who was sick of death and his “ancient family seat” in Cornwall, near where the couple wed. Virginia never got to meet Simon’s parents, though she briefly encountered his sister, Clara. Yes, sisters matter in this series too – this being the third installment in the author’s Prohibition series. Somehow I missed The Wicked City and A Certain Age. Note, Cocoa Beach can stand alone.

When Virginia arrives in Cocoa Beach, to her surprise she’s greeted by Simon’s strapping brother, Samuel. Same hazel eyes as Simon but from there the two couldn’t be more dissimilar. She describes him as a “straightforward man,” implying Simon is not, but, as we’ve established, none of the players are whom they seem to be. Clara, another big surprise, is also there, effusive in sisterly love and adoration for her niece. She has Simon’s sway, convincing Virginia to partake in some of the fun and sun she’s been deprived of. Clara symbolizes this energetic, decadent age “electric with life” – like the novel where everything pulses. Even the peaceful Maitland orchards and gardens, fifty miles from Cocoa, which Simon writes so passionately of, managed devotedly by Portia Bertram, present quite dramatically.

Simon’s letters are also over-the-top. Does he really love Virginia as intensely as he purports? Believe she’s the “kind of woman worth waiting for. Dying for. Living for”? He claims everything he’s done in Cocoa was for her.

Circling us right back to the novel’s biggest mystery: Did Simon die for Virginia in that deadly fire cited on page 4? Look forward to another 370 teeming pages to find that out, and more. Until then, Beatriz Williams keeps us guessing.

Lorraine

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Our Little Racket

Inside an outsider’s world (Greenwich CT, Manhattan and Shelter Island NY; summer before/months during the 2008 financial crisis, and aftermath): Weighing in at roughly 500 pages, The Little Racket makes a big splash, unfolding around the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression from a psychological angle. Actually five angles: five women whose provocative narratives constitute character studies. A privileged, complicated bunch ripe for book club analysis as they’ve either remade themselves or are hiding something.

Big in the sense that these women are as multi-faceted as the factors that led us to the brink of economic collapse in 2008. A financial meltdown and reshuffling that triggers their emotional volatility and instability.

A big setting – one of the richest communities in America. The “false wilderness of Greenwich” Connecticut, where you’re whisked to a black sedan-guarded mansion: the home of a very rich CEO of a “too big to fail” fictional investment bank, Weiss & Partners. Bob D’Amico is so big he’s earned (and relishes) the nickname, Silverback, which “makes him feel big.” This shadowy Wall Street world is so big and convoluted no one really understands its “intricacies and machinations” – a big part of the problem.

Big in its electrifying prose. Biting social and cultural commentary. Like the economists still trying to figure out what went wrong, these five women are not so easy to figure out. All emit a “Greenwich whisper,” but they’re not to be stereotyped as Angelica Baker’s keen prose presents them multi-dimensional and enmeshed like America’s financial system. And while her penetrating prose offers us a lot, it hints at more. Makes us stop and think about what these women are really angling for, what makes them tick. Since 99% of us have zero experience with this ultra-wealthy crowd, we’re intrigued. The novel grips in the vein of snooping inside their massive closets, out of curiosity not approval.

So it’s also a big diversion for this blog as there aren’t any characters who enchant us. Some you’ll feel sorry for, sad for, but none you’ll fall in love with.

Unless your idea of a wife (Isabel) is to be so perfectly put together you want to scream: will the real Isabel stand up, like the mantra of the TV game show, To Tell the Truth. Unless your idea of a mother is an “ice queen,” content with your fifteen-year-old daughter (Madison) feeling “like a spy in your own house.” Madison is convinced she knows more about her father than his own wife, blind ambition resembling a younger version of Ivanka Trump. Then there’s the nanny (Lily) caught between a simmering cynical dislike of the elite (she attended Columbia University on a scholarship; Ivy Leaguers all get their due throughout) and caring for her upper-crust charges. There’s also two featured girlfriends – Mina, Isabel’s and Amanda, Madison’s – thirsting to be consequential, when/if allowed.

Mostly, you’ll likely feel a range of averse or, at minimum, ambivalent emotions for this tony lot. For their detachment, grandiosity, backstabbing, recklessness, falsehoods.

Blame is a big theme. Who is to blame for the financial crisis? Fictionally, everyone wants to blame Bob. In real life, it’s not just Wall Street that bears all the brunt. What about the homeowners who took on the burden of mortgages they couldn’t afford? Risky for them, risky for the rest of us. For other causes, see:

Wall Street and the Financial Crisis

Similarly, Isabel, Bob’s elegant, “measured” wife consumes much of the psychic blame. Just because her house is so big there’s a separate wing for her and Bob doesn’t mean she should bar Madison and her eight-year-old twins (Matteo and Luke) from entering. Isabel is far from a hugger. She prefers to wrap herself in MOMA charity events and the like, leaving the heart of a family’s gathering place, the kitchen, feeling “as huge and cold and silent as a mausoleum.” Is it Madison’s fault her parents named her after one of ritziest avenues in America? Lily’s fault she’s the nanny but when catastrophe strikes she needs her mother?

You sense the denouement at the opening: the summer before the historic crash when the D’Amicos are vacationing on New England-ish Shelter Island, a ferry ride from Greenport on the Long Island Sound, at the passed-down beach house of Isabel’s parents, not good enough for Bob’s highfaluting tastes. Another author might have opened with Bob’s bank failure. Baker lets us absorb the portending for 65 pages of exquisite prose that leaves some cunning on the surface and the rest buried for safekeeping.

Safety is the name of the game for these uppity, insecure women. “Fragile bonds” mimicking the fragility of the markets. Everything is knotted up; we watch the unraveling. An enormous price must be paid for the enormity of greed and egregious behavior that allowed the dominoes to tumble down on Wall Street, right into the laps of these characters. Fairly? Unjustly?

With all the animosity, anger, contempt, and injustice to go around not all the prose is gorgeous, intentionally. Notable is the vulgarity released from Isabel’s tightly-pursed lips, coarseness unbecoming of her old money pedigree. (The others are new money seekers.) Which is precisely the point. According to my count, three times this woman of “steel” exposes she’s not who she purports to be.

Madison’s a lot like her mother. She has her “goddess features” and is stoically self-contained. A perceptive young lady but not perceptive enough. So when the undoing confuses her, she lashes out, rebels. A cry for help. Who is listening?

Lily and Mina are. Though most of the time these two are oh so cool to each other, resenting the other, both competing for the fickle attention of this flip-flopping survivalist’s universe, where no one really knows whom to trust, or quite where they stand. That includes no one really knowing what Bob has done wrong. Plenty of resentment floats about.

Lily’s betwixt and between. Generously (and appreciatively) employed by the family for years, her redeeming quality is she’s mastered how “to decipher Isabel’s moods to see how she could help the children to navigate around them, and then to withdraw.” We’d like her more if she too didn’t keep secrets, and take advantage when things fall apart. Her name befits lily-white Greenwich. Another anomaly for this blog. A lovely setting from the outside, but inside it does not enchant.

You may like Mina the best. She agonizes over the choices she’s made for a lifestyle disingenuous to her Long Island roots. But we feel she must be partly to blame for her estranged daughter Jaime begging to go to boarding school (Andover, of course) at fourteen. Her husband Tom, a Princeton alum at Goldman Sachs (a fierce competitor of Bob’s as in these two don’t mix well), seems to be the cause of force-fitting Jaime into Greenwich Prep where she didn’t belong unlike Madison and her so-called friends. Mina is forever choosing Isabel over Tom, clueing us in on her unhappiness.

Madison’s angst is the most painful. For she’s the most victimized, the most hurt. Devastated that people “gamble away the things they always told me were so important.”

Which brings us to today. Banks are bigger than ever. Who is heeding the warnings to break them up? This isn’t just an entertaining novel, but an important one. Some pundits think we’re headed for another Depression. This tale was never about a little racket, but a great big one.

Lorraine

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Girl on the Leeside

An Irish Sleeping Beauty (West Coast of Ireland, present-day): This is a novel with a fairy-tale soul. Sweet and dreamy. Ancient and 19th century Irish and Celtic poetry grace its pages, as well as the hearts and minds of its three key characters, giving it a sense of timelessness, soulfulness.

The poetry memorializes Ireland’s mystical, magical beauty. Seamus Heaney exalted “lough waters.” William Butler Yeats wrote of “waters wild.” A. E. (George W. Russell) glorified “delicate dews” and a “breath of Beauty.” Yeats also wrote of a “faery” and a “beautiful mild woman”; A. E., a “long sleeping.”

Not all the poems are from the Old World. That beautiful fairy shows up as the girl in the title. Siobhan Doyle secretly composes her own poems immortalizing Ireland’s surreal beauty. She possesses a “fairy charm.” Even her watchful childhood friend, Maura (her only real friend when the tale begins), felt she “invented” Siobhan, that one day she’d disappear into her “fairy-mound.”

That’s because of her striking appearance – long dark hair reaching down to her knees – and her mysterious and unworldliness around people. Instead, Siobhan, a “poetic soul,” finds enchantment in ancient Irish poetry and the misty beauty of her pristine surroundings on the western coast of Ireland, the Connemara region. Someplace between Clifden and Galway, two miles down a coastal road outside the fictional village of Carnloe, you might find Siobhan lulled by her hallowed Lake Carnoe – or in Irish – Lough Carnloe.

The thing is Siobhan is not a girl. Though she’s quite small, she’s twenty-seven and still doesn’t know “how to stop being shy of people.” Her hulking, well-over six foot tall Uncle Kee, turning fifty, went to such lengths to protect her he “created a soul too gentle for this world.” He gave up alcohol when he suddenly became the parent of a frightened two-year old after his dear sister Maureen, Siobhan’s mother, was killed in an IRA bombing in Northern Ireland; presumably so was Siobhan’s father, a British soldier – a nod to Ireland’s anti-British history. He’d already forsaken his university dreams of studying Irish Gaelic poetry due to familial responsibilities but not his passion and knowledge, which he instilled in Siobhan.

For all he’s gone through, Kee keeps his feelings to himself whereas Siobhan doesn’t even understand hers. They both share a special bond for Irish poetry, Ireland, and the three-hundred-year old stone pub passed down six generations that Kee owns and the two run together – the Leeside.

Leeside, though isolated, is the cultural hub for this small, remote community. So it is remarkable how emotionally detached Siobhan has been despite friends and neighbors who gather here. Among them are Maura and her husband Brendon, their four-year-old daughter Triona Siobhan adores, a troublesome brother Nialle, and Maura’s father Seamus. Katie is another one of the regulars. She’s a brassy woman who raises Connemara ponies (Siobhan cherishes hers), who has had her eyes on Kee for a long time.

Connemara pony
By Olaf Kleinwegen, via Wikimedia Commons

A third devotee of Irish literature brings us to Siobhan’s sweet awakening. Tim, a professor of Irish studies from Minnesota, is on his way to visit Kee when the novel opens. Siobhan is apprehensively preparing for Tim’s visit, for her uncle has decided to re-open the pub to overnighters. That practice ceased years ago when an incident there threatened his precious girl. Tim has never been to Ireland, but Siobhan immediately picks up on his deep appreciation for Ireland’s “poetry, mythology, folklore, and history,” which stirs her delicate heart, unfamiliarly.

Tim also sees something of himself in Siobhan yet he intuits with tenderness she’s very different than any woman he’s ever known. While he tries to separate his feelings from his scholarship, the truth is he has fallen hopelessly, achingly, in love with her uniqueness instantly. Hence, the set-up in this old-fangled love story.

Tim’s romantic dilemma is how to penetrate Siobhan’s inner world without scaring her off and how to do that from afar. Could she ever leave a place she’s never traveled from, away from the waters that soothe her and the uncle she reveres?

For Siobhan’s part, she’s never been involved with a man. She has no idea if the emotions she feels around Tim and the “emptiness” that bears down on her once he’s gone have anything to do with love. Perhaps the “intense passions” in her poetry are guiding her, she muses, for she had a visceral instinct she couldn’t just say goodbye as he’s about to leave. So she guiltily concocts a lie that assures he’ll have a reason to stay in touch. Their twice daily email correspondences draw them closer, yet the lie shames her, stands between them, and she isn’t sure of his feelings since they’re not face-to-face, illuminating a condition of contemporary life, though so much else in the novel feels as though time has stood still.

A few more examples to make the case for the aura of yesteryear. A Prologue set in the 20th century conveys a “mystical bond between women.” The importance of female friendships being a “wellspring for each other” is a poignant theme of sharing and caring that plays through.

There’s also a nomadic caravan family that stops by the pub every September to sell their wares, including the warmest and loveliest sweaters that pay tribute to Ireland’s sheep farming history. Siobhan looks forward to seeing the merry band of travelers, especially Gwen; also her son Turf (great name given the love of the land), his wife JoJo and their children. They’re gypsies: “members of an ancient clan, ragged nobles of the road, the last strands of a vanishing way of life.”

Travellers’ Decorated Caravan
By National Library of Ireland on The Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

The concept and spirit of traveling is also expressed in the backstory of Siobhan’s mother, a restless soul; by Siobhan who is calmed by sheltering in place; and through all the armchair travelers who see the world via literature, including poetry.

It’s summertime, so we too are dreaming of traveling. Whether you’re making plans to travel from home or stay put and let fiction transport, Girl on the Leeside offers peacefulness. Peaceful like our world is not. Your trip will take you to an unhurried place of sheer natural beauty. A kinder, quieter world where life is more basic. That’s not to say these people aren’t hardworking, but they have time to count their blessings. Girl on the Leeside gently reminds us of that.

So while you’re reading, imagine yourself as Siobhan gazing into the “pearl gray” waters of her lough. Imagine glimpsing the dramatic Aran Islands a short distance away, and knowing you’re among friends who extend a “perpetual welcome.” Imagine an “untamed valley of rough beauty,” with its verdant “folds of hills and cozy knolls,” a landscape so beckoning it seems a fantasy. Then wonder like Siobhan: “How does a person really know where they are meant to be?”

Lorraine

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All The Rivers

Is love enough? An Israeli and Palestinian love story (seven months in New York City after 9/11, mostly): Thanks to Jessica Cohen’s beautiful translation of Israeli writer Dorit Rabinyan’s All the Rivers, this breathtaking novel is now ours to read. If the passionate prose soars in English, what does it sound like in the deep and resonant intonations of Hebrew?

I ask because this is a novel of passion about an all-consuming love affair between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man converging at a time and place that’s a perfect storm: New York City in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

In fact, everything about this novel feels immediate. From the moment Liat, 29, met Hilmi, 27, at a Greenwich Village café she “felt an immediate intimacy” as though she’d known him for “a thousand years.” He felt that connection too; within three hours he was tenderly calling her Bazi, “sweet pea.” And she immediately grasped he’d be a once-in-a-lifetime love that couldn’t possibly last. An impossible love, a forbidden love, so fraught with complications, fears, and realities it threatened her identity, heritage, family at its core.

This magnetic “push and pull” romantic drama is marked by deeply conflicting emotions and the urgency of time. Liat is a visiting Fulbright scholar getting her master’s in Hebrew translation at Tel Aviv University, due home in seven months to fulfill teaching commitments. Her scholarly pursuits fit her conservatism, and highlight the importance of translation as a career. Rabinyan and Cohen’s gorgeous literary collaboration case in point.

Hilmi is the opposite. With his hair a “sea of frizzy charcoal curls,” in contrast to her tight ponytail, his image befits his artistry and idealism. He’s been in the city for four years on an artist’s visa, teaching Arabic and working on a “dreaming-boy” project: a series of forty autobiographical drawings consuming his Brooklyn bedroom walls and floating from the ceilings like Chagall’s “floating lovers.” Awesome, vivid, dreamy echoing their love and the prose.

How bitterly ironic Hilmi’s home is just forty miles from Liat’s, yet worlds apart. His large, loving family lives in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, one of the controversial settlements in the West Bank.

Is it any wonder, then, that the seven months Liat and Hilmi spend together are “mad and beautiful days?” The intensity and ephemerality of a love that “stunned and excited” all the time is conveyed in long, flowing, heartfelt prose. Paragraphs consume pages, structured in brief chapters, as if the author knows she must let the reader keep coming up for air:

“…moments when I can feel he understands me, that he can make his way in and out of my mind’s twists and turns, that I can look at his wise eyes and see the wheels of his mind spinning in perfect harmony with my thoughts. The ease, the satisfaction, the comfort that fills me in those moments. The curiosity and delight of pondering these things together. In those moments when we talk and talk and talk, I feel like I have been a sort of enigma to myself, a difficult riddle to solve, he has come along to know me and to answer all my questions … I feel I am almost becoming him, so close to him and infused with him that I can practically feel what it is like to be him.”

The novel stuns and excites in the way imagery and metaphors intensify emotions and themes. That might account for Rabinyan receiving the 2015 Bernstein Prize for Israeli writers under fifty (the 2014 novel was originally published in English as Borderlife), and that it was also banned from Israeli classrooms. Utterly adult, intimate, so we can see why young adults would also be drawn to it. So many complex questions, so few answers.

Lest the novel’s anxious time period of heightened suspicions does not fully register, it jolts by opening with the FBI knocking on Liat’s door in the Village (she’s apartment sitting for Israeli friends) a mere hours before meeting Hilmi. Someone spotted this olive-skinned, “Middle Eastern looking” woman, contacted the authorities.

If that terrific reality is not stormy enough a backdrop for the couple’s emotional storm, the author ups the ante by wrapping their love in a wicked winter, one of the worst on record (actually 2002 was one of the warmest). The symbolic fierceness of the weather pummels throughout: At first, the freezing weather huddles the lovers as if it’s just the two of them against the world. New York City beckons and they explore its neighborhoods, a treat for all who know and love the city. As their days become numbered and the limits of their relationship are tested, wintertime slides “gloomy and foggy like a film noir,” then so freezing “cold that it shocks your entire being and makes it lose hope.” As the couple’s heated arguments are triggered over politics, the weather ices like people’s prejudices.

The power of art is added to this tumultuous mix. Love has inspired a “golden time” for Hilmi’s creativity. An outpouring that possesses, exhausts, makes him weep.

As the conflict between their homelands erupts – the Iraq War – we feel like weeping too. For this is a novel about many kinds of passionate love, including love of country.

Do you believe in happy endings? Hilmi, the dreamer, does; Liat, the pragmatist does not. Hilmi believes peace will come; Liat, enraged, views his wishful thinking as “binational fantasies.” She’s surprised how alarmingly deep-seated her outlook is, more aligned with the right-wing posture of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As I was puzzling over Liat and Hilmi’s divergent political ideologies, not even sure if Netanyahu supports a two-state solution, The Washington Post published an excellent, lengthy piece laying out how problematic swapping land for peace has devolved, how enmeshed Israeli society is in the occupied territories.

While this is first and foremost a novel about an intense romance racing against a loud ticking clock, the burning question as to whether peace can ever be achieved in the Middle East hits us in a new light. It’s striking how improbable it seems for love and politics to be separated, no matter how profound that love. As much as we hope love overcomes, equally it feels hopeless.

Of course that’s the heart-tugging question that burns here. Will love be enough?

Lorraine

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The Whole Way Home

Triangular Love, Home, and Country Music (Nashville, present-day): The Whole Way Home sings like real country music. “A living heart in a song.” A “dance despite the heartaches.”

“Good country music” – in the straight-talking words of Floyd Masters, Sarah Creech’s old-time country music legend turned radio sage who graces our airwaves from Vanderbilt’s station, 87.3 FM – “should make you feel something, should cover the entire territory of the heart.” Creech’s second novel surely does with prose that’s strong, tender, achy, spirited, sorrowful, angry, wary, honest.

Are you one of the two million fans of the country music TV show Nashville longing to relive the romantic chemistries and musicality between three country music stars before they killed off the female character centering them? Well, dazzling indie singer/songwriter Rayna Jaymes – that “rebel woman,” that “good-values kind of woman” – is back as Jo Lover! As magnetic and torn between “two different kinds of love” as Rayna was.

This time around Nashville’s Deacon Claybourne, the fiery guitar-strumming character wrapped up in Rayna’s history, returns as J. D. Gunn, Jo’s Appalachian childhood soulmate who, along with his band brothers the Empty Shells, is now a “multiplatinum-selling country music megastar;” and Luke Wheeler, Rayna’s calmer, more conservative heartthrob is now Nick Sullivan. Privileged, yet he earned his reputation as the “most sought after producer in Nashville, maybe in the entire music industry – he could play bass, guitar, pedal steel, accordion, harp, mandolin, piano, percussion, horns.”

J. D. is from Jo’s past: she hasn’t seen him in five years. Nick is her future. Until things change, in Chapter 1, The Wrong Chord.

That’s when country music’s latest inductee into the Grand Old Opry – Jo – walks onto the stage of the “mother church of country music,” the Ryman Auditorium, and becomes so unnerved seeing J. D. she misses an easy chord. Noticeable to anyone who knows the music.

Picture the set-up: Imagine Jo as a “young Emmylou Harris” (long black hair, tall, slender), strutting her signature red Ariat cowgirl boots, singing in her “trembling, lilting, Southern-accented voice.” She’s thirty-two, from a small mountain town in fictional Gatesville, Virginia, where “mountains and music make memories.” Her female fans – the ones she writes for – are screaming for her “mountain-girl style,” for the sweet sounds of her fiddle and mandolin, for her healing music.

1916 Gibson F-4 Mandolin
By Anita Ritenour (Flickr: Gibson Mandolin) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hear Jo’s down-home Appalachian twang as she rouses the crowd: “Always been a lot of guessing about who I write my songs about,” she eggs them on. “But I think what really matters is heartbreak. Anyone ever experienced one of those?”

Observe she’s not a folksy Jo when she steps onto that historic stage all made-up in her hot dress and even hotter seven-carat, Assher-cut diamond. She’s engaged to three-time Grammy winner Nick, whose father owns Asphalt Records, the indie label that’s nurtured her.

Look whose sitting in that wild-for-Jo audience! Jo didn’t expect to see him, but you can’t miss his Elvis-looks: black wavy hair and “blue eyes lit up with innocent joy like paper lanterns.” Their estrangement seems to be about Jo feeling he’s sold-out to a corporate label. Once poor as “pickup sticks,” but she hasn’t forgotten what “her mama always said … don’t get above your raising.” That musical mistake is the first sign something is still there between them. If only J. D. could get her to smile at him, “that look that always did him in like the full moon over the mountaintop.” But Jo loves Nick, he’s good for her; she wants no part of J. D. Right?

Romantic tension skips through the pages. Jo’s country music men deeply love her in their own ways, which is why the novel sings. It’s not until you’re halfway through that Jo and J.D.’s backstory becomes acutely clear; it’s not until the novel’s end that the romantic triangle reshapes to two.

Like Rayna and Deacon, Jo and J. D. have a past they can’t seem to get over. But Nick’s a really decent guy, lower-key, gracious, and he offers her a love that’s purer and safer. Like Rayna and Luke, Jo and Nick are to be married on his magnificent estate (in eyeshot of J. D.’s) in an over-the-top wedding scheduled around their tour dates.

Whomever you’re rooting for, whoever wins Jo’s uncertain heart, with the TV visuals and sounds running through your head, the whole reading experience is even more immersive and satisfying.

Connie and Deacon at the Bluebird Café

Nashville – No one will ever love you – Connie Britton et Charles Esten

The plot does bubble with some “thinking like a businessman” bumping up against “thinking with his heart.” How else could this be a candid look inside the country music industry from the standpoint of the singer/songwriter/musician as well as the business executive’s?

The authentic thread continues with storylines about up-and-coming young talent like the Flyby Boys band, amplifying what it’s like to get noticed, picked up, make it in Nashville. It feels like the whole gamut: from the local “dive bar circuits” such as the imaginary Thirsty Baboon, to yearning for a gig at the legendary Bluebird Café where dreams can come true, to the heavy drinking and lusting on tour, to hearing your songs on the radio, to going viral, to the make-or-break publicity in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, American Songwriter, the tabloids, paparazzi, to 360 contracts, to the “post-Napster world” of digital streaming. The author’s research hums like she’s from this world.

The Whole Way Home also pays tribute to country music greats, names we all know and some we may not: Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Reba McEntire, Gillian Welch, Alison Kraus, Kitty Wells, Bessie Smith, Phil Dolby, Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Deford-Bailey, Charly Pride.

Don’t be fooled by the list of female artists or the sole black virtuoso who made it big. The author also doesn’t shy away from the industry’s prejudices. It’s far more profound than “country music was still a man’s world,” that it still sees women as “one-dimensional.” It doesn’t embrace a whole lot of diversity.

Racially, discrimination is illuminated in the stories of two black artists. The one that affects the plot the most involves Alan, a member of J. D’s band, who works at the Black Country Music Association, founded to address the inequities. He hails from the Bahamas but his “songs felt so true to country.” Creech invents contract deals to bring home the shame of racism, yet she imbues a moral conscience in her writing and has a poet’s way of easing the pain.

One of my favorite evocative lines recalls memories of Home, a major theme. Jo, as we’ve established, has ambivalent feelings about J. D. In one poignant scene, she:

“felt time fold in like an accordion. J. D. smelled like red clay earth, like composing leaves on the floor, like the honeysuckle vines and Confederate jasmine blooming in June, like wild roses growing on the side of the road and fresh honey from the hive and barn straw and his daddy’s cow pasture after a spring rain, like the metallic air before the storm. He smelled like home.”

Another moving scene takes place on stage, when Jo and J. D. are pressured to play together for the good of the record label. They choose an old song they wrote and sang a long time ago called “Glass Hearts.” It’s a beautiful title, one that epitomizes the novel. “Great songs don’t lose their power with age.” Neither should The Whole Way Home.

Lorraine

PS Could the novel’s release be timed any better? Tonight at 9PM on the cable channel CMT, Nashville returns with some new characters. Will they be as good as Creech’s?

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