Reviewed by Jane Tompins
By rights I should be reviewing the magnificent biography of Golda Meir I’ve been reading for the last several weeks, a book that made me realize how little I knew about Israel, its founding, and the character and exploits of one of its greatest leaders. Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel by Francine Klagsbrun is encyclopaedic, absorbing, and hugely informative, but I’m leaving it to you to read if you’re interested. The heavy lifting involved in condensing this monumental work into 800 words is too daunting.
Instead I’m going to talk about an almost weightless British novel, published last year in this country by William Morrow, a sort of Lewis Carroll meets Muriel Spark fantasy that seems at first to be hopelessly whimsical and treacly in the time-honored British way—full of the scent of roses and a thousand cups of tea—but turns out to contain enough tragedy, bad luck, and unjust circumstances for at least three novels, and to fashion imaginative resolutions for several damaged lives.
In fact, its theme is that expecting one’s life to conform to a conventional, middle class, model—heterosexual marriage, decent income, two kids, two cars in the garage—will get you in trouble every time. Despite the fairytale setting—Victorian house just outside of London, rose garden, polished silver, and many fireplaces—the lives of the characters in this story are plagued by accidents, disappointments, unrequited loves, and fearful behavior—the things that most people have to deal with in reality. The opposition between the idealized setting and romantic circumstances of the plot, on the one hand, and the difficulties and misfortunes that beset the characters on the other, provides the tension that keeps the story going.
The situation is this: A short story writer whose fiancée was killed by a car on the day of their wedding occupies the beautiful old house I’ve mentioned—its name is ”Padua”—which he keeps as a monument to his lost love. He created the rose garden in back especially for her because she loved roses. He hires a somewhat uptight young woman whose marriage went wrong to care for the house and manage his affairs, and a good-looking fellow of few words to take care of the garden. For several years, things go quietly on. Though the house-owner is a writer, his passion is his collection of lost things. On the day his fiancée died, he lost the locket she had given him and has felt guilty ever since for losing the last link between himself and his love. As a way to make up for it, he collects lost items he comes upon in the course of his days—each one documented as to the place and time of discovery—in the hopes that at some time they may be restored to their original owners. This is what Henry James would have called the story’s donnee, or “given.” From there the tale spirals out in several directions.
Each development presents a situation marked by ill-luck. One involves the developmentally disabled girl who sits on a bench in the park across from the house; others involve the people who lost the objects that fill the shelves of the room where the writer keeps his treasure. Another concerns the relationship between a publisher’s assistant and the man she works for who misses his chance to publish a volume of stories by the owner of Padua. The assistant loves her boss wholeheartedly and they are the best of friends, but he cannot return her love on all levels because of his sexual orientation. The author handles these knotty situations with a mixture of wisdom and whimsy, sometimes relying on common sense and bigheartedness to get her characters through, sometimes on supernatural interventions.
A tone of hopefulness and gratitude runs through all these stories. One feels oneself in the hands of a benign Providence, not so much because there’s a deus ex machina waiting in the wings to make everything right when things seem impossible, though that does happen in at least one instance, as because of the attitude of trust in life and a celebration of what it offers that motivates the characters and the author. An aura of faith in possibility coupled with appreciation of the actual give emotional substance to the experience of reading this novel and one emerges from it refreshed, enlivened, and entertained. ~