New Release Review: The Maze at Windermere

Gregory Blake Smith, The Maze at Windermere (2018)

As regular readers of this blog know, I have the joy and honor of being a graduate of Carleton College (model for Blackstock College in the novel Tam Lin – click on the link for a tour). So when I learned one of my favorite professors in the English department there had just published a new novel, I couldn’t wait to read it and share it with you. I’m glad to say that it fully met and exceeded my expectations, and I hope that you’ll welcome it as well.

Set in Newport, Rhode Island, across more than three centuries, The Maze at Windermere takes us through a panorama of history as seen through the eyes of five memorable characters: a washed-up tennis pro, a predatory social climber, a budding novelist, a British spymaster during the Revolution, and an orphaned Quaker girl. Their stories are told in turn through several cycles, slowly revealing the similar themes and motifs that can guide such very different lives. At the conclusion, these narratives begin to meet and merge in a quicker and less orderly alternation, coming together into a whole that closes some gaps, but leaves some still tantalizingly open.

Having been at various overlapping times a bastion of religious freedom, a commercial center, an important military base, a playground for the rich, and a breeding ground for artists, Newport is a small but fascinating location from which to explore American history and culture. Smith’s command of different voices and points of view is dazzling — including writing in the voice of the young Henry James, which would seem quite daunting for any novelist. He moves seemingly without effort from one narrative to the next, writing in sometimes in first person, sometimes in third person, completely changing his tone and style while somehow retaining a sense of the underlying unity of his story. It’s quite an impressive achievement.

Fortunately, Maze never descends to being a mere parlor trick or showing off the writer’s verbal facility. At its heart are questions about life, the world, and our place in it that play out differently for each one of us, yet are always the same throughout the mortal journey we all share. How do we form connections that leave one another free? How do we embody our desires in a way that honors the deepest parts of ourselves, and of the other person? Some of Smith’s characters grow in their progress toward self-knowledge, while others make questionable moral choices. But by means of the healing distance of fiction, all stories can contribute to our own learning.

I was first introduced to the idea of the “nine cities of Newport” through Thornton Wilder’s novel Theophilus North, which remains one of my favorite novels. The Maze at Windermere will go on the shelf alongside it as another marvelous evocation not just of this particular place, but of the puzzling, mysterious, frustrating, exhilarating endeavor we call life. I hope you will enter this fictional maze, and maybe find a new favorite as well.


You made me read it: The Art Forger

B. A. Shapiro, The Art Forger (2012)

For my blog anniversary this year, I celebrated with a Make Me Read It giveaway, meaning the winner got to select a book from my TBR pile for both of us to read. Congratulations to R-J, who chose to receive a copy of The Art Forger, which I sent for her reading pleasure. I then promptly misplaced my own copy, but fortunately the ebook was available from the library, and I could read it in a timely fashion. Thanks, R-J, for helping me knock one more book off the pile!

The Art Forger plays off the real-life theft of thirteen works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston, a horrendous crime that has never been solved. To the actual facts of the case, it adds an imaginary work by Degas which is brought to a young, struggling artist to copy. The dealer who brings it (claiming he knows nothing about the rest of the stolen goods) suggests that this will enable the original to be returned to the museum; despite the shadiness of the deal, Claire is unable to resist the temptation to live with and paint a real Degas. Except that once she starts working, she begins to have some suspicions that all is not as it seems…

Claire has a backstory involving a past boyfriend and another dubiously attributed work of art, which is gradually revealed in flashbacks from the main narrative. She can’t get out of the shadow of this disaster and have her own work recognized, another reason she’s lured into a deal that from the reader’s vantage point seems like a really, really bad idea, not to mention another terrible relationship. A series of imaginary letters from Isabella Gardner further thickens the plot, and Claire must also unravel an unexpected mystery there.

While I was intrigued by the connection to the heist and to the art world of Boston, I found The Art Forger to be somewhat plodding in its style and not very visually stimulating. It’s not easy to write about visual art, especially contemporary art, whose appeal most often eludes me, and Shapiro’s descriptions of Claire’s “amazing” paintings of windows (???) did not convince me. The letters allegedly by “Belle” also didn’t quite ring true, though I’ve not read any of her few existing letters for comparison. I found the subplot they involved to be silly at best and at worst insulting to the historical figures involved. It’s also not easy to combine fact and fiction in this way, and Shapiro’s characters mostly fell flat for me.

So, although there was enough suspense to keep me turning the pages, I found this a forgettable diversion, not holding a candle to my very favorite novel about art and forgery, What’s Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies. Some other fiction about art and artists I’ve enjoyed are The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary, Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, and Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood.

Did you read The Art Forger? How do you think it measures up to other books about the art world? Or do you have other favorites in this field to recommend?


What is fiction for?

When a certain public figure made it known through his mouthpieces that when he says something that contradicts the perception of others, it’s to be called an “alternative fact,” this gave rise to much mirth in literary circles. Libraries and bookstores posted “Alternative Facts” signs with arrows pointing to the fiction section, suggesting that creating fiction, telling stories, is another way to describe an activity that otherwise might more baldly be called “lying” or “having a delusional view of reality” — unless, of course, one inhabits the alternative world in question.

I’m not sure I agree with what this says about fiction. Fiction, rightly understood, is neither a lie or a delusion. Though stories can be used to deceive and manipulate, I do not believe that is their true purpose. I do believe that a lack of appreciation for what stories are, how they work, and why we need them forms a large part of the reason why we find ourselves in such a state of crisis today.

“Tree” by Arthur Dove

To understand what fiction does, we must first recognize the realm in which each of us does indeed inhabit an individual world of “alternative facts.” This is the realm of our perceptions. When you and I look at a tree, our perception of the tree does not match exactly. Even if we have the same sense organs, variations within our organism can create smaller or larger variations in the way these senses operate, and thus in the inner picture we each receive of the outer object. This becomes clearer if we consider conditions like color-blindness. If I am color-blind and you are not, the perception of “green” might be integral to your perception of the tree, but absent from mine. And if the sense of sight is absent altogether, the situation is even more extreme.

And yet, even if we have different or missing sense perceptions, you and I can still agree that what we are sensing is a tree. Why is that? It’s because in addition to living in a realm made up of separate, isolated, and individual perceptions, we also live in a realm of wholeness in which each individual thing and each separate perceptual experience relates to every other. We can call this the realm of meaning. You and I have a living, flexible experience of the concept “tree” that allows us to include many different sense perceptions within it, and also to relate it to other meaningful concepts such as forest, nature, earth, plant, and so on. This is how we can communicate and understand one another.

In everyday life, meaning often eludes us. We tend to make use of it without noticing it, overlooking its role in creating what we call the “real” world, which we think of as made up from the aggregate of our sense experiences. When we do notice it, it tends to be when meaning is absent or fragmentary; perhaps you and I speak different languages and I cannot understand that what you call “Baum” is the same thing I mean by “tree.” Or you come from a land without trees, and have no way to comprehend what I mean by the word.

“Tree,” anonymous 17th century Italian

Such experiences may lead us to think that an ultimate realm of integrated truth is unattainable, but in fact they just provide more evidence of how our organism supplies us with limited, separate perceptions. This does not affect the fact that when we do achieve understanding, when we connect in the realm of meaning, it is an experience of wholeness. Though we are not able yet to access it fully and completely, this does not mean that it does not exist, or that we should cease to strive for it.

Emotions, wishes, and illusions get in the way of this striving, distorting our view and creating another set of “alternative facts.” Perhaps, due to some trauma or weakness in myself, I desperately want to believe the tree in my yard is bigger than the tree in yours, and so powerful is this wish that to me that it does look bigger, regardless of its actual size. Or perhaps in making such a fuss about my tree I’m amplifying its status in the neighborhood, since now nobody can think about anything else, and thus there is a kind of perverse truth to my claim. You might say that measuring the trees would solve the problem, but it would in fact only displace it. Unless you and I can agree on what our measuring stick means, and on how it connects with our perceptions of the tree, we will get nowhere.

In creating fictional narratives, writers and storytellers are working artistically with the realm of meaning. They use sense perceptions as part of their material, of course, but weave them into a whole in which the shape of the narrative, the rhythm of its composition, the alternating of tension and relaxation, the setting up and subversion of expectations, and other intangible elements form the actual fabric of the reader’s experience. It’s the movement, the creative energy, that matters, more than any fixed and finished “fact” — something we find incredibly hard to grasp in our materialistic world.

A story is a wholeness in which each part relates to every other. This is not necessarily a conscious, deliberate act of construction on the author’s part, but simply the essential definition of what a story is. A random collection of facts is not a story, unless we make it into one by finding meaning in it, giving it a shape that of itself it does not possess. And though each reader’s experience of the same work of fiction will be slightly different, due to different life experiences and different capacities for thought and emotion, each reader experiences it as a unified entity. Where there are places that are cryptic or baffling or unfamiliar, we look for meaning, we try to complete what presents itself as partial and incomplete with the fulfillment of our understanding.

The small stories we read for pleasure or edification are practice stories. They are here to help teach us something that we need to begin to learn at this point in history: how to craft the larger story that is made up of our own individual and interconnected lives, within the even greater framework of the cosmos, into a thing of beauty, purpose, and meaning. Works of fiction are not given to us to enable us to retreat into separate worlds, but to connect us, to integrate us, to bring us closer to wholeness. Even when they shatter us, destroy preconceived notions, make us feel uncomfortable or frightened or disturbed, this too is part of the path toward a greater whole, which sometimes requires disintegration in order to re-form reality on a higher level.

“Heart of the Andes” by Frederic Edwin Church

At least, that’s what I believe fiction is for, and what it can become when it’s practiced with honesty and integrity by both writer and reader. It’s a long road, but to me it’s the only one worth taking.

Why do you read fiction? What are you looking for, and what do you experience in that world?

Margery Sharp Day: Britannia Mews

Margery Sharp, Britannia Mews (1946)

For the third year in a row, Jane of Beyond Eden Rock is hosting a birthday celebration in honor of the author Margery Sharp, to encourage everyone to read and enjoy her witty, entertaining novels. As Jane notes in her announcement post, for the first time in quite a while many of these are now easier to find (at least for those of us with e-readers) since ten of them have been released as e-books by Open Road Media. I took advantage of this fact to snag the only one that wasn’t already checked out from my library, Britannia Mews. It turned out to be the perfect book to beguile me for a few wintry hours, immersing me in the titular London neighborhood and its colorful cast of characters.

Though not a long novel, it takes us over a span of many years, from the Victorian age to the second world war, following the life of the central character, Adelaide. From a sheltered young girl who defies her parents with an ill-advised elopement, she evolves into a strong woman who has weathered many ups and downs of life, and learned one of its most essential lessons: there’s no use in trying to escape, because you always take yourself with you. With such a theme, it’s appropriate that the book is named after the run-down former stable area that Adelaide’s upwardly mobile family once moved away from, but that drew her back and would not let her go. Accepting her fate leads to some unexpected transformations, both in Adelaide and in the Mews.

The latter part of the book leaves Adelaide in the background to focus on her niece, Dodo, who is coming of age in a very different era leading up to the Second World War. Still, the need to find a sense of integrity is timeless, and Dodo goes through her own process of growth. Along the way she discovers some (but not all) of the secrets that lurk in her family cupboard, as Sharp slyly makes us question which truths really matter.

The pace of the novel never lets up, and the large jumps in time make it feel a bit breathless occasionally. Overall, though, Sharp makes it work, and packs a huge variety of incident and plot, and also of thought and passion and artistry, into a remarkably compact space — not unlike the Mews themselves.

I enjoyed every page of this delightful book, probably my favorite Margery Sharp so far. What’s yours?


Reading New England: The Witches of Eastwick

John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick (1984)

eastwickWhen I said I planned to read The Witches of Eastwick for the Reading New England challenge, I also said I didn’t expect to enjoy it — and I was right, I didn’t. So this is going to be one of the rare times on this blog when I talk about a book I did not like at all. Usually I prefer not to spend my blogging time on negativity, but this time I do want to try to work through my thoughts and see if I can articulate them in a comprehensible way. If you’ve read the book, I’d be very interested to hear yours as well — whether you agree with me or not.

According to the author himself, this is a book about female power; some even consider it a feminist book. But the power is entirely negative, life-denying, solipsistic. The witches themselves (three middle-aged women in the coastal Rhode Island town of Eastwick, who gain magical powers upon losing their men through divorce or death), are primarily interested in having affairs with a succession of local men, crowned by the newcomer to the town, Darryl Van Horne. All the men are unattractive, but Darryl — who is never explicitly identified with the Devil — is the most horrendous of all, with his ice-cold semen and rampant vulgarity. Yet the witches are obsessed with him and become murderously jealous when he takes up with a younger woman, with disastrous results. Does this lead them a moral awakening? No, only a few minor qualms, followed by escape with another set of magically conjured men. The end.

It was striking to me that the witches are all mothers, but they have barely any scenes with their children. They complain about them, they plot how to get them out of the way so they can have sex with their lovers, they groan about what terrible mothers they are. But we almost never see them interacting with them, and more than anything else, this made the book seem like a male fantasy to me. Get the children out of the way; insinuate yourself into the female brain, and see how all she thinks about is you, you, you. Other women are just obstructions to be gotten out of the way, or to make victims of petty revenge and spite; even animals who interfere with the pursuit of selfish pleasure are simply objects to be destroyed at will. And men are also objects of mere desire, disposed of when they become boring. Naturally, female power has a dark side, and maybe that’s all that Updike set out to portray; but I do not believe that’s all there is to it.

The handling of magic also bothered me. The book’s premise is that when women become free of the confines of marriage, they become witches in the literal, medieval sense: sprouting extra nipples to suckle their familiars, saying backwards Latin chants, making wax figures, and so on. This seems to be Updike’s idea of a joke; the novel takes place during the Vietnam era, when such women in a small town would indeed have been thought of as witches — so why not make that the truth?

The thing is, this spontaneous arising of witchcraft out of nowhere does not entirely make sense. Sometimes it’s intuitive and psychologically true (the witches making an image to destroy their enemy); other times it’s silly and over the top (turning tennis balls into various objects during a game). Some of their spells are primitive forms of sympathetic magic; others are more sophisticated, like the backward prayers that pop into their heads untaught. The mix of magics felt random and sloppy to me, and too un-subtle in its manifestations.

Was there anything I did appreciate? Well, Updike writes in a highly sensuous, tactile way, and turns some beautiful phrases. Nearly every description turns into a sexual reference, of course, making one feel trapped in the mind of a twelve-year-old boy, but at doing that he is very effective. Darryl, in all his sliminess, was a rather brilliant modern take on the unholy charms of the Devil; his sermon (held in a Unitarian church) was disgustingly mesmerizing, and his “Vote for me” ending fit right in with the political situation, both then and now. And there was one character for whom I felt a smidgen of sympathy and understanding, one of the men who is driven by the witches into madness and suicide. Finally, I felt there was a human character I could believe in — not particularly like or identify with, but at least find convincing. So it might be worth reading one of Updike’s books centered on the male perspective, where his writing might ring more true. This one, I’m afraid, held no magic for me.


Reading New England: Swim That Rock

John Rocco and Jay Primiano, Swim That Rock (Candlewick, 2014)

SwimRockSwim That Rock focuses largely on the most notable feature of Rhode Island’s geography: its coastline (which, as I mentioned in my state preview, covers almost 400 miles in a state less than 40 miles wide). And it dwells in loving detail on one of the human activities that has taken place there for untold generations: quahogging, or fishing for the hard-shell molluscs that abundantly populate Narragansett Bay.

This is not an activity that I would normally expect to capture my interest; I don’t even like clams, for heaven’s sake. But authors John Rocco and Jay Primiano write so fervently and engagingly that I couldn’t stop reading. It helps that they have created  a central character who is easy to like: fourteen-year-old Jake Cole, who can’t accept the death of his father at sea or the possibility that loan sharks will repossess the family diner and force him and his mom to move to Arizona. He takes to the water, determined to do something to save the way of life he loves, in the only way he knows: by fishing as hard as he can.

Encounters with shady characters provide excitement and local color, but it’s Jake’s elemental striving to wrest sustenance from the depths of nature, his quest to push himself beyond physical and mental limits, that is the real heart of the story. The authors (who grew up in a town very like Jake’s and are experienced quahoggers themselves) succeed in making us feel that we too have grappled with bullrakes and recalcitrant engines, with blisters and exhaustion and the need to pack in just one more load.

While the setting is brought to life with vivid immediacy, the character development is not quite so successful. There is an intriguing but rather perfunctory love interest for Jake, who I wish had gotten to tell more of her own story, and a father figure who is conveniently sidelined so that Jake can be on his own. Jake’s mom and best friend also remain somewhat shadowy, cardboard characters.

There’s still plenty of narrative drive and energy from the scenes on the water, though, and plenty of reasons to enjoy this fast-moving but emotionally satisfying story of adventure. If you’d like to experience something of what it means to grow up in Rhode Island, among the fishermen and women who are so much a part of its history and identity, do give it a try.


Paris in July: Four French Delights


Paris in July is an event hosted by Thyme for Tea that encourages us to enjoy and blog about all things French — books, movies, food, what have you. In a burst of synchronicity, when I learned of this event I already had not just one, but four books on my shelf to go with the theme, including several newly published or reissued translations from French, and one debut novel in English. I had a fabulous time immersing myself in French history, culture, and atmosphere with these books, and I hope you will too!



The Sun King Conspiracy by Yves Lego and Denis Lepee, translated by Sue Dyson
This historical novel is set during the early years of the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. A highly complex tapestry of voices, and plot threads, it seems to attempt to put a “Da Vinci Code”-type spin on French history, with mixed success. For me the first half, which we spend waiting for the death of Cardinal Mazarin, the real power behind the throne for many years, dragged a bit. The second half, when Louis comes into his own and some fortunes rise while others fall, was more exciting, but the concluding reveal of the great conspiracy that had been anticipated throughout the book was a letdown — silly and unconvincing. The large cast of characters and short chapters, with their abrupt scene changes, could also be confusing. Still, I enjoyed the panoramic view of a time and place about which I had previously read very little, even though the perspective on certain historical characters and events should be taken with a large grain of salt.
Gallic Books, April 2016 (reissue) • Source: ARC from publisher

Constellation by Adrien Bosc, translated by Willard Wood
On October 27, 1949, the Air France aircraft Constellation-BAZN took off from Orly airport with 48 souls. In the early hours of October 28, as it was landing for refueling in the Azores, the plane disappeared. In this short novel, Bosc gives voice to some of the individuals who perished, both famous and unknown, as well as retracing the response of the world to the tragedy, and even giving some insight into his personal research journey. Structured as brief vignettes that switch from one topic and point of view to another, it was more like a tantalizing set of appetizers than a full meal, leaving me wanting to know more about some of the lives we glimpse so fleetingly. Yet perhaps that was partly the point — to highlight the briefness and transience of life, leaving us with an impression like a sprinkling of stars in the night.
Other Press, May 2016 • Source: ARC from publisher

Girl in the Afternoon by Serena Burdick
Burdick’s debut novel was a compelling read that I finished in nearly a single sitting, with its story of two young painters in 1870s Paris, and the web of family secrets, deceit and betrayal that both binds and divides them. Though the subject matter is sensationalistic, Burdick’s treatment of it is not; rather than aiming at big, splashy effects, she quietly makes us feel the emotional impact of the events she describes, through subtle and evocative turns of phrase that make her writing a pleasure to read. It wasn’t quite what I thought it would be — the artistic themes stayed more in the background than I had expected — but that turned out not to be a problem, as the result was moving, surprising, and thought-provoking.
St. Martin’s Press, July 2016 • Source: ARC from publisher

The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson
I haven’t quite finished this one yet, but I already know that it’s one readers will find either magically poetic or utterly impenetrable — and I know that I tend toward the first camp, though with understanding for the second. An atmospheric, slow-moving fantasy about two extraordinary girls in pre-WWII France and Italy, it’s one of those rare books I can enjoy without always entirely understanding what is going on. It reminded me in various ways of Little, Big; Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; the Gormenghast books; and The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. . . so if you love any of those, it is probably worth a try.
Europa Editions, February 2016 • Source: E-book from library

Some copies were received for review consideration from the publisher. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.


New Release Review: The Summer Guest

Alison Anderson, The Summer Guest (2016)

SummerGuestAlison Anderson is perhaps best known as a translator — maybe you’ve heard of a little phenomenon called The Elegance of the Hedgehog? — but she’s also a novelist in her own right. With her latest novel, The Summer Guest, she seems poised to come to greater prominence in the latter role, with a beautiful and moving story that brings together life, language and literature in a magical way.

The “summer guest” is Anton Chekhov, who at the beginning of his literary career spent two summers on an estate in the eastern Ukraine belonging to the Lintvaryova family. There he met Zinaida Lintvaryova, a young doctor tragically stricken by blindness and seizures that she knew would soon prove fatal. Their growing friendship is the main subject of Zinaida’s diary, in which she painstakingly documents the precious experiences and revelations that illumine her darkness. Most intriguingly, Chekhov tells her of a novel that he is working on, in which he’s striving to do something different from the short stories and drama that come more naturally to him. She becomes almost a working partner to him, giving him the wisdom earned through suffering, even as he gifts her with his wealth of observation and description, his bubbling sense of humor, and his attentive respect.

The diary, though, is only one layer of this multi-faceted narrative. In the present day we meet Katya, a Russian woman now living in Britain with her husband, where they run a publishing company teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The publication of the diary, Katya hopes, may be a turning point in their fortunes…but it soon becomes clear there are further layers of secrets and intrigue to be uncovered. Is the diary only the beginning of another story?

Then there is Ana, the translator to whom Katya entrusts the manuscript. As she works through its pages, she becomes more and more engrossed in the lives of Chekhov and the Lintvaryovas, and in the idea of the novel that might be waiting to be discovered. Figures from her past come back to haunt her as she starts to investigate what she thinks may be the key to her own future.

As you can tell, there is a lot going on here, and some of the strands are more successful than others. The diary is the strongest and most substantial part, while the stories of Katya and Ana sometimes feel like a distraction, creating tangents that take away from the main narrative. Certain elements — like the present-day troubles in the Ukraine, or Ana’s former love life — feel somewhat haphazardly thrown into the mix, not given quite enough time or depth to be meaningful.

Portrait of Anton Chekhov by his brother Nikolay. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yet in the end, I did find that the presence of the other two women added poignancy and meaning to Zinaida’s story. The life-giving nature of literature and the vital role of translation, of communion between artistic souls, is seen from different angles and given a new slant. The perspectives of publisher and translator, as well as of writer, reader, listener, and interpreter, come together to show how important stories are to us as human beings, how powerful our need for creating and receiving and living them.

The language is carefully and lovingly crafted, most impressively in the diary, which is written in an English that flows with ease and eloquence and still somehow gives an indefinable sense of being a translation, leaping across the gulf of another language and culture to speak of that which is both foreign and common to us all. I don’t want to think of Zinaida’s diary as a fictional construction, or of her friendship with Chekhov as a novelist’s fantasy, so real and convincing are their interactions, so deeply moving some of the passages in which she speaks of how she lives in the face of approaching death. Here she speaks to Chekhov, or rather to her friend Anton Pavlovich:

I have paused innumerable times since my first headache, my first dizziness. Each time, with each spell, seizure, degree of blindness, I have lost a part of life. Each time fear comes in, showing death to me. You have seen for yourself, from last summer to this, how life is draining out of me…And each time I do not die — although I could choose to let go, see the pointlessness of it all — I do not die because I shake my fist at fear. This is all there is, yet it is still so much. Even I have my moments of hope — not for eternity, not even that I might survive or recover my sight — because I already have survived, and I have learned to see.

tlc logoIncluded in the novel is the real obituary that Chekhov wrote for Zinaida, in which he spoke of the “rare and remarkable patience with which [she] endured her suffering.” From such fragments, a few lines in a letter, the known facts of two summer visits, Alison Anderson has brought her people, both real and imagined, past and present, into shimmering life. It may be an illusion, but it’s one of those magical works of fiction that helps us to better see the truth.

This review is part of the TLC Blog Tour for The Summer Guest. Visit TLC to see more reviews and features from the tour.


New Release Review: The Children

Ann Leary, The Children (2016)

The Children_COVER copyAnn Leary’s new novel caught my eye largely because of its Connecticut setting, as I’ve been looking for representatives from that state for my Reading New England challenge. And the setting — a slowly disintegrating lakeside estate, situated near an insular town and private school — is indeed very important to the book, and quintessentially New England.

The longtime retreat of the proud, wealthy (and stingy) Whitman family, Lakeside is now home to former patriarch Whit Whitman’s widow Joan, and her two daughters from another marriage, Sally and Charlotte. Charlotte, who rarely leaves Lakeside, is the narrator, and as she tells her rambling, discursive story we slowly come to see the cracks in the family foundations. For the house is actually owned by the sons of Whit’s first wife, and when one of them brings his prospective bride into the women’s sanctuary, it brings up ghosts from the past that still have power to wound and destroy.

In counterpoint to the claustrophobic pull of this singular place is the bewildering, fast-moving realm of the digital world, through which anyone can go anywhere and be anything without leaving home. Charlotte, the reclusive homebody — don’t call her agoraphobic! — has a secret, highly social, and lucrative life on the Internet; e-mails, texts, computer hacking, blogging, and social media all have their role to play in this modern twist on the age-old story of the snake in the grass. Leary pokes fun at the superficial, inauthentic nature of much of our online life, while pointing out some of its very real dangers.

Charlotte’s voice is funny, endearing, and sad, as she gradually circles toward the real matter at the heart of the family’s disconnect. Through her half-knowing, half-naive perspective Leary skillfully drops in bits of information that keep us guessing and engaged to the very end of this short novel. I’d definitely recommend it for reading by the side of any lake this summer.


Reading New England: Hidden View

Brett Ann Stanciu, Hidden View (2015)

HiddenViewIf you’re tired of seeing the same books from the same big-name publishers hyped everywhere, and would like to discover some quality under-the-radar fiction that not everyone knows about, I have got something for you. Hidden View by Brett Ann Stanciu is a true hidden gem, a novel with a distinctive and haunting voice that taps into universal, archetypal themes while being grounded in a very particular place.

The voice belongs to Fern, a young woman who became pregnant and married at nineteen, and now finds herself and her young daughter trapped on a failing Vermont hill farm with an increasingly distant and brutal husband. When her husband’s brother returns to claim his inheritance, love, fear, desire, and pain mingle explosively.

If this all sounds too depressing and maudlin for words, it isn’t — and that’s in large part what impressed me so much about Stanciu’s writing. Yes, she unflinchingly portrays the difficult realities of Fern’s life, but most of all she makes us feel the presence of Fern herself, the strength of her essential being that endures in the face of hardship and finds joy, wisdom, grace in this most unlikely of places. Through the precious, painful gifts of motherhood, by the cultivation of growing things, in her awe and wonder at the natural world, she grows toward the light and we suffer and grow along with her.

Stanciu’s prose is sometimes as flamboyant as a maple grove in October, sometimes plain as an unpainted pine board. She knows the art of suggesting much and stating little, of bringing together inner and outer images in a poetic alchemy.

I leaned against the barn’s cornerboard, wide as my back, stretching from my heels to far above my head. Make myself so, I thought, for my child, as solid as this barn that has stood here, uncomplaining, for so many decades. The weakness of my careening heart I could stamp into the earth and set my foot upon it. Who would need a heart when I had my strong hands? I pushed off from the barn and headed up the drive, snow whirling. Wind blew icy and wet on my face. It filled my bones and muscles, swooped me up in its great embrace, slitted my eyes.

Fern is no saint, and she doesn’t always make smart choices, but her story is all the more riveting thereby. Stanciu has shown how modern people in an ancient landscape struggle to make their way against the forces of nature and their own demons, trying to find and save what is of value in themselves and the land. It’s a story that deserves to find many readers who will love this brave, piercingly honest novel as much as I did.