Susanna Kearsley, The Rose Garden. Sourcebooks Landmark: 2011.
Susanna Kearsley has been on my to-read radar for a while. She always appears on those “Recommended for readers of” lists on my Amazon and Goodreads accounts. The only one of her books the library had, although not her highest rated, was The Rose Garden.
I was dubious when I pulled the book off of the shelf. The cover, with it’s bare-backed female, screams romance. I try to stay far away from reading strictly romance genre novels. There are very few romance novels that make it into the “literature” category and, honestly, you can never know when the book will suddenly turn explicit. The description on the book’s back cover almost turned me away, reminding me too much of the Outlander series, which sounded like great fun but which I abandoned because it broke too many rules and tipped the “explicit meter” too much for me.
I decided to read The Rose Garden anyway, and all I can figure is that the cover and title (which doesn’t really have anything to do with the plot) are all marketing. The novel has romance elements in it, but that element wasn’t overwhelming. It is hard to categorize, though. It could settle easily in the fantasy genre, too.
In The Rose Garden, Eva travels to scenic Cornwall to scatter her sister’s ashes in a place that was significant to them both as children. She stays at the Trelowarth estate with her childhood friends, brother and sister Mark and Susan Hallett and their step-mother, Claire. She finds her friends and their flower business in financial trouble and decides to work through her grief over her sister’s death by helping them open a tea shop on the estate. Eva’s research for the business’s website leads her deep into the history of Trelowarth and Cornwall.
Not long after her arrival, however, Eva begins having strange episodes in which she is disoriented and sees an unknown man walking around Trelowarth. She soon realizes from her modern-day research into the estate that she is going back in time to the early eighteenth century. The historical inhabitants of Trelowarth house are brothers Daniel and Jack Butler and their Irish friend, Fergal. The Butlers are smugglers running between the Cornish and French coasts and are deeply involved in the Jacobite rebellion.
Eva quickly becomes attached to Daniel and Fergal and finds herself disappointed and uncomfortable when she’s thrown back to the twenty-first century. It isn’t long before her life becomes tangled up with theirs as she, too, seems to be irrevocably involved in their perilous schemes. Her historical research offers her few comforting clues as to how the Butlers’ story ends. She is forced to start asking herself hard questions. How will she manage to have a meaningful life in the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries if the time travel continues? What if her actions in the past do damage to the modern world as she knows it?
Although I rarely read romance or time-travel novels, The Rose Garden was just the right book to read over the Christmas holiday. It isn’t serious literature, and it didn’t tax my brain when I had to pick it up and put it down so frequently. It was pure escapism and proof that a gentle, “PG,” romance can be written. There were a few things that drove me nuts, like why Eva never tried to figure out what triggered the time travel or how to control it and how easily she adapted to living in the eighteenth century. History is quite a foreign place and I think it would have been far harder to adapt than Kearsley made it out to be. But I did enjoy the novel for something different and I’ll be reading Kearsley again.
This year I’m going to try to be more intentional about what I read. I have an enormous list of books on my informal to-read list, but in a typical year, if I’m not careful, I end up reading a lot of casual “fun” books, like murder mysteries. It’s not that there is anything wrong with those, or with just wandering the library shelves and picking out what looks good, but I’ll never make it through my list if I’m not more disciplined.
Here’s what I’ve got down so far. I am hoping that if I put the list out there for all to see, I will actually stick to it!
My favored genre is literary fiction and I’ve still got some big gaps in my reading of the classics (a few of these are old books in other genres that have stood the test of time).
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The Vicar of Wakefield
Out of the Silent Planet
With every passing year, I regret the learning that I did not pursue. I would like to say by the end of 2017 that I am closer to being an expert on something. My “something” of choice is South Carolina history, particularly the South Carolina low-country during the colonial and Revolutionary periods. If anyone out there knows of any great resources in this area, please pass them my way!
Down By the Riverside
I don’t know how to categorize these books, other than to say that I want to stay an informed citizen. These two books purport to speak to the issues and upheavals of the last couple of years.
The New Jim Crow
Theology is an area where I need to expand my thinking and not rely solely on my own ideas.
None Like Him
The Epic of Eden
Big Truths for Young Hearts
I know that the majority of my reading in 2017 will be plain old fiction. These have been getting great reviews.
A Man Called Ove
A Gentleman in Moscow
News of the World
If I can stay half-way disciplined, look for reviews of these books to be coming soon. What is on your reading list for 2017?
David Suchet and Geoffrey Wansell, Poirot and Me. Headline: 2013.
I think most voracious readers agree that there is an uneasy relationship between books and the films made from them. We endlessly debate amongst ourselves, Is the book or the film better? For my part, movie adaptations make me uncomfortable; rarely is the movie better than the book. If it is a book I liked, chances are something valuable to me will be altered. I know it really can’t be helped; the two-to-three hour movie format usually means that some important details have to be dropped. But even if the book isn’t a favorite, I’ve already expended a lot of mental energy imagining the world of the book and it’s jarring to see it all rearranged on the screen.
I do realize, however, that a lot of the way people feel about films depends on which they encounter first—the book or the film. I watched the first few Harry Potter movies before I read the books, and when I got around to reading the books, it was a real treat. Nothing substantial changed and I enjoyed a much richer story. On the other hand, for someone who’s read Pride and Prejudice countless times the latest film adaptation starring Keira Knightley is très awful. Too much of the depth and subtlety of the book got the chop. But if you’ve never read the book, I suppose you might like the movie.
I’ve had these thoughts on my mind since I received a copy of Poirot and Me by David Suchet for Christmas last week. In Poirot and Me, David Suchet, the British actor who successfully filmed the entirety of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot canon for British television, chronicles his twenty-five-year career with the little Belgian detective. Suchet explains that acting the part of Poirot turned into more of a relationship with the character than a job, and his genuine sorrow at the end of that relationship prompted him to write this book.
A few pages in, Suchet says something that really struck me. It’s the “thesis” of his book, really. When he was offered the part, he had to admit that he didn’t know much of anything about Poirot. He’d never read one of Christie’s novels, and the film adaptations he had seen left him with the impression that Poirot was “a silly little man with a funny accent.” When he started to read the stories for himself from start to finish, he realized that Christie had created a man with a robust moral compass, a great kindness toward his fellow men, and who wasn’t at all meant to be funny. Taking the part of Poirot would fulfill what he believed to be his purpose as an actor—“to become the writer’s voice.” He wanted to show the world exactly who Agatha Christie made Poirot to be.
Suchet spent the next twenty-five years (on and off, of course) perfecting Poirot—his appearance, his walk, his accent, his facial expressions, his moral clarity. I had never thought before of how much work it is for an actor to represent a novelist’s character. After all, the script offers only the words. But Suchet took it upon himself to advocate for Christie’s Poirot, even though he knew he was annoying the directors and costumers who had their own ideas of who Poirot should be. He worked beyond the script to make Poirot a real man.
As I read Suchet’s recollections, it struck me just how good of a job he had done. I started watching the show in the 90s and also started reading Christie’s novels in the 90s. The fact that I don’t know which came first, how I can seamlessly move between the books and the films, is a testament to Suchet’s hard work. I realized that the Poirot on the screen is the Poirot in the book. I don’t struggle in my mind with which one is better.
For someone who has watched a majority of the TV show, Poirot and Me is an enjoyable catalog of the making of each episode and how Suchet filled the time between, along with a few charming anecdotes about the show’s fans. Perhaps if I were British I would have known this, but Suchet is also a well-known and awarded stage actor. Despite the Poirot role being the best-known of his career, Suchet has proven to be a versatile character actor. In fact, I don’t think I would enjoy many of the other roles he has played, so far are they from being like Poirot.
Suchet makes the case that, in many ways, his own character and Poirot’s are the same and that there were a few moments when he wasn’t sure which man was doing the talking. Even so, I did not feel that I got to know Suchet himself too much by the end, and would consider that the one downfall of the book. I appreciated the perspective he offered on the final few series that were filmed. I haven’t seen the last five episodes yet, but I feel that Poirot became darker and darker as the years went by. According to Suchet, this resulted from his and the new producers’ efforts to make the show as realistic and faithful to Agatha Christie as possible. I can respect that (all while missing the heart-warming feel of those early years).
If you have watched the Poirot films but never read any of the original stories, dive right in. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Or—if it’s vice-versa—I would honestly say the same thing. I’ll go out on a limb here and say the one is just as good as the other.
My fondness for old houses is no secret to those who truly know me. It started at an early age and, as the years go by, becomes more and more what I’d call my “passion.” (I’m baring my nerdy soul here.) There is nothing that captivates me as much as entering an old house—furnished or unfurnished, preserved or not—and walking through, absorbing its lay-out and quirks, and running my imagination in high gear. It’s a feeling that is hard for me to articulate to other people because, frankly, I imagine that other people find old houses about as interesting as lawn clippings or anything else mundane. But for me old houses are quite the opposite of mundane; they offer a perfect marriage of my liking for history and my love of stories.
An old house holds an endless echo of questions and, hopefully, answers that tell a story. Who built the house? Who were the workmen who wielded the tools? Could the owner afford it? Where did the furniture (if it’s still here) come from? Who slept in this bedroom? What did they eat in this dining room? Who cooked the food? What were they wearing when they sat here by the fire? Who cleaned the house? What life-changing events took place here? Was it a house filled with happy memories?
In a city like Charleston, South Carolina, where you can look up one side of the street and down the other and just about the only modern disturbance you’ll see is cars parked and passing by, my mind literally goes crazy. So many houses, so little time. So many stories, so little knowledge of them! I want to immerse myself in them, know everything about them, and tell their stories. Of course in my life as it is the opportunities and outlets for this are few and far between (okay, nearly nil), but when I dream, this is how I dream.
Richard N. Coté, Mary’s World: Love, War, and Family Ties in Nineteenth-Century Charleston. Corinthian Books: 2001.
There is at least one house in Charleston for which someone else had a similar vision. The Miles Brewton House on King Street (which I’ve never entered because it is a private residence) and the family that lived there are the subjects of a book entitled Mary’s World: Love, War, and Family Ties in Nineteenth-Century Charleston by Richard Coté. Coté served as the historical researcher when Peter Manigault, a descendant of Miles Brewton and the owner of the house, decided to renovate the house in the 1990s. He had a privileged view of the house, inside and out, and access to the innumerable historic resources connected to the house and its centuries’-worth of inhabitants. Concurrently, Coté worked on a collection of Alston, Pringle, and Frost family papers. Coté pulled all of these resources together into a narrative form in Mary’s World.
While Mary’s World is primarily concerned with the life of Mary Pringle (1803-1884) and her descendants before and after the Civil War, Coté’s story begins with the Brewton family of Charleston and its most well-known member, Miles, Mary’s great-uncle. Miles was one of the foremost merchants and land-owners in colonial South Carolina and began building his King Street house in 1765 when he was only 34 years old. The house—then and now—is considered to be one of the best Georgian-style homes in America. Miles and his family were lost at sea in 1775 and the house passed to his sister, Rebecca, Mary’s grandmother. [I have to say, right up front, that my favorite anecdote from the book involves Rebecca hiding her daughters in the house’s attic from the British soldiers who made her home their headquarters during the Revolution!]
Mary Motte Alston was born in the house in 1803 and married in its drawing room to William Bull Pringle in 1822. While the Alston and Pringle families both owned many rice plantations in the lowcountry, Mary and William lived in and managed their empire from the Miles Brewton House. There Mary delivered thirteen children, all but one of whom lived to adulthood, and there she died in 1884.
It is difficult for me, the modern reader, to grasp just how different Mary’s life was from the life of any modern Southern woman—just how complex the rice plantation system was and how wealthy the families at the top of it came to be. I imagine that with running her household, personally educating her children in their youngest years, and her involvement in the running of their rice business, Mary had more on her plate than the average CEO. While her life was certainly one of privilege compared to other Southern women of her time, Mary did not live a life of ease.
All busyness aside, the Pringles did live in grand luxury. Coté’s book details the layout of the house and its gardens and outbuildings, the decoration and uses of each room, and the inventories of furnishings and art in the house during Mary’s lifetime. For me, the early story of the house’s construction, the important events and people surrounding it during its first years, and this tour of the house in Mary’s time made for some of the most fascinating reading in the book.
With the hindsight of history, the reader knows that the way of life familiar to young Mary and her children was rapidly coming to an end. Unfortunately for the Pringles, they allowed themselves to fall into financial trouble even before the Civil War began. Their overspending before the war, combined with the tight economic situation during the war, doomed them to disaster. When the Union troops occupied Charleston in 1865, all was lost.
My own image, August 2014.
The tale of the Pringles after 1865 is, at best, “grim.” The aftermath of the war seems, now that I’ve read about it, to be obvious, yet I think the lives of the plantation class in the months before Reconstruction came in full force are mostly unknown or ignored. In their confrontation with the Union, the Pringles lost not only one-third of their sons, but their country, homes (several plantations burned and they fled the Miles Brewton House in the city), labor force, food supply, and income. Most of the “wealth” that the Pringles managed to hold on to was so devalued as to be nearly worthless. This family, who had for generations lived in comfort and luxury, did not know where their next meal would come from.
The Pringles, having retreated up the state and scattered their belongings among relatives in hopes of preserving them, waited months before returning to Charleston and haggling with the occupying forces to re-enter the Miles Brewton House. When they finally returned home, the house was bare and they slept on the floor. They sold off more possessions to make ends meet and gradually turned away the few remaining house slaves because they could not afford to pay them. Their plantation fields were in ruins, their former field slaves unwilling to work. Despite years of effort in trying to revive rice production, the Pringle family never recovered. Mary and William died house-rich but impoverished in every other way.
The account of the twelve adult children given in Mary’s World illustrates how strikingly diverse life could be for the former plantation class after the war. The war itself took several Pringles—one died in battle, one of typhoid, and one of mental illness a few years later. One son became immensely wealthy as a planter in Louisiana and avoided the war by living in France. Another stayed in Charleston, becoming a distinguished civic leader. One daughter became an uncomfortable Yankee and endured years of separation from her family. Another daughter and son-in-law tried to revive the plantation lifestyle and failed. Three children migrated to California and nearly convinced their parents to join them. Truly, life in post-war South Carolina must have been devastating for thorough Southerners like Mary and William—who had given nearly everything in the war—to consider leaving their ancestral home.
Thankfully, for posterity’s sake, Mary and William never left the Miles Brewton House. The house eventually passed to a grand-daughter, Susan Pringle Frost, who must have been a true kindred spirit. Susan founded the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings in 1920, an institution which is still going strong and doing good work today as the Preservation Society of Charleston. Thanks to Susan’s initiative, many of those beautiful old houses are still standing, just waiting for someone to tell their stories.
These “Carolopolis” medallions are given by the Preservation Society of Charleston to honor historic preservation and restoration. They can be spotted on homes all over town. My own photo, October 2014.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Clermont-Ferrand. Construction began in 1248, using volcanic rock that gives it its distinctive dark facade.
It’s time again to pull out some vacation memories. Thanksgiving is upon us and the Christmas craziness will be here all too soon. It is hard to believe that over (or is that only?) four months have passed since our trip to France and Italy.
Of the approximately two weeks that I have spent in France, a dozen of those days have been in Clermont-Ferrand. Clermont-Ferrand is about three hours south of Paris by train, in the Auvergne region. The town appears against a backdrop of small, volcanic mountains after the train passes through hundreds of miles of flat farmland. It is not unlike Greenville in this way (aside from the volcanic part). The jet black towers of a Gothic cathedral crown one of the lowest hills and mark the center of the old medieval city. For all that, Clermont-Ferrand isn’t a glamorous or particularly picturesque town, by any stretch of imagination. I’m sure it can’t compete with the villages of Provence or the Loire Valley or the Alps. But in my world, it’s the location of Michelin’s headquarters and the reason for my two trips to France—so I’ll take it.
Despite its glamorous reputation, I still haven’t come to love French cuisine (sorry, Julia!). I suppose this makes me a rube. Aside from the boeuf bourguignon at a tiny little gem of a place in Paris, French food has not been to my taste. I will happily chow my way through sandwiches au jambon every day of the week for lunch, but dinner-time food is a different story. Thus finding a place to eat dinner in Clermont-Ferrand was a source of tension for me almost every night. I know it was irrational, but it had a lot to do with my level of expectations. I really wanted to have a wonderful dining experience. I didn’t want to waste a single night in Europe on a bad meal. But I remembered one of my worst dining experiences of all time happening during my first trip to Clermont-Ferrand.
The restaurant in question was probably a decent place, but I just wasn’t decent at ordering, even with my French skills. When my order arrived, I was overcome—not by the appearance of my food, but by the smell, which greatly resembled a “gutted-deer” smell. Any woman who has experienced morning sickness will understand exactly what I mean when I say that the smell immediately made me nauseated. I’m a “big girl”; I can eat food that I don’t like. But this was on a whole ‘nuther level. I had to remove the plate from in front of me and set it on the empty table next to us, away from my nose. And then I had to swallow my pride and ask the server to bring me a plain old hamburger. I still don’t know what was on that plate.
With this gustatory memory clearly in mind, each afternoon in Clermont-Ferrand I wasted nearly an hour looking through TripAdvisor hoping to secure myself an awesome dinner. Frankly, none of my options ever looked great. As I looked through the TripAdvisor lists, I would find a good option, only to discover that the restaurant was not open that night, or it didn’t have any reservations available, or its menu was a mélange of items that meant nothing to me. Yes, I made this way too hard. So on our last evening in town, I armed myself with a list of three possibilities before we made our way into the old section of town and just hoped and prayed I wouldn’t smell the gutted-deer smell.
Option Numéro Un turned out to be just a wine bar with tapas. Thanks, TripAdvisor. So, we walked on to Option Deux, down a narrow, Smart-Car-only sized street. “La Table de Thierry” appeared around the bend. It was tidy and inviting, with wide windows on each side of the door. A small table lamp sat against one window, giving out a cozy glow. The menu placard standing on the street beside the door presented edible options (so far as I could understand), so we made the plunge. Option Trois would be left unexplored.
The restaurant’s door stood open, but no one was in sight. Either the restaurant was closed, or we had come too early. (As Americans, we had the apparently ridiculous idea of eating dinner before nine or ten in the evening.) I called out a bon soir and a tall, grand man emerged from the kitchen, swathed in the chef’s garb of white with a draping apron around his midsection—the quintessential French chef to an astonishing degree. (Think along the lines of Gusteau in Ratatouille, take off a few pounds, and you’ll just about have it.) I inquired if he had a table available and he said oui, as long as we allowed him to finish his preparations in the kitchen first. It seemed Thierry was to be host, server, and chef for us that night. Our culinary adventure began.
“La Table de Thierry” was a small restaurant, as many European restaurants are, with at most eight tables and a bar. An array of black and white photos covered the dark grey walls and a shelf lined with large coffee table and picture books about cars and auto-racing ran the length of the room. The Michelin man made an appearance here and there among the motoring memorabilia.
Thierry reappeared a short while later and set a large, handwritten chalkboard menu on a stool beside our table. He spoke a little English, I spoke a little French, and in collaborative fashion we explained the menu to our group. He smiled and enthused over each item and his passion for the food was contagious. We had a delightful conversation with the gregarious chef. The world got a little smaller when we found out that he was quite familiar with Michelin and had been to Greenville. And for me, the conversation had another magical quality—for the first time that week, the French language came halfway easily, and I managed my first conversation. Ordering fast food and talking to retail assistants does not count! To my sadness I’ve found that it takes me almost a week to get up to speed, and here I was on our final night in France finally getting the hang of it again. We each made our choices and Thierry returned to the kitchen, making all of those banging and sizzling sounds that assured us our meal was coming together.
We sat alone in the restaurant, doing what Europeans have perfected—letting the day end slowly and quietly, while savoring the food, the company and the twilight over a space of several hours. The forced slowness of the meal made me realize that you really have to like the company you’re in, or at least be a willing conversationalist, to make the pacing work. Sitting with someone for a long period of time allows for a lot of learning and give-and-take. I started to wonder how different our average relationships might be if we lingered around a table like this more often. And I started to notice details—funny little things that I might have missed in a rush to eat. While we sat eating our crusty bread and prosciutto-wrapped melon, I watched a bodiless arm holding a smoking cigarette repeatedly appear and disappear from a window one floor up across the street. When the hand finally finished, a lounging cat replaced it on the sill.
And still we sat. At one point, two men came in and sat down, and we watched Thierry perform his act again. When another group tried to come in, he apologized that he was full-up for the night. The plat came and went—a risotto of mussels for me and a steak and whipped potatoes for everyone else. Thierry looked reproachfully at my almost-empty plate and asked if I had enjoyed it. I don’t think he believed in “saving room for dessert.” By the time I was having my third or fourth chocolate mousse of the week, darkness and quiet were firmly in place over the old town, interrupted only by the occasional scooter exploding past the windows in a blur of color and sound.
We left the restaurant late into the night—I think it was ten or after. I paused on the street for a picture. Thierry came out and called me to his side. The picture had to have the people in it! That night, the experience wasn’t so much about the food, although I was hugely grateful that it didn’t smell bad. It was about the slow pace, the details, and the connections. Making connections with individuals on the other side of the pond has made me more sympathetic and a good deal less nationalistic. Frenchmen, after all, are people, too.
It hardly seems likely that a book extolling the virtues of duty and responsibility over romance and self-discovery could be engaging and likable reading, but The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge pulls it off.
I think I’ve mentioned before that from time to time, I like to find old books on the library shelves—the ones in library binding with no cover art—and rediscover a forgotten author. I brought such a specimen, The Bird in the Tree (1940), home from my latest trip to the big library. I read Goudge’s name in an article about English authors à la C.S. Lewis recently and, lo and behold, there she was on the shelf in the boring blue binding. I do have to wonder when the book was last checked out. I can’t imagine that Christian apologetics masquerading as fiction (with a great deal of sentimentalism) is in high demand.
In The Bird in the Tree, Goudge creates a seaside paradise in and around an old house called Damerosehay. [If you or someone you know can tell me how to pronounce this word, I’d be very appreciative.] Widowed and recently given the care of an orphaned grandson, Lucilla Eliot purchased Damerosehay on a whim in 1918 and vowed to make it a haven for the family she had left. Twenty years have passed, David the grandson is grown, and another set of grandchildren now live an indulgent, heavenly life with Lucilla following the divorce of their parents.
Into this garden of paradise comes a singular, sticky problem. David falls in love with his young cousins’ divorced mother, Nadine. David, who is set to someday inherit Damerosehay and become the care-taker of all its charms, knows that if he marries Nadine he will irrevocably cut himself off from his beloved grandmother Lucilla and, in all likelihood, find himself disinherited. He believes his love for Nadine is his “truth” and must be honored at all costs. Lucilla, of course, cannot stand idly by and allow David to forever alienate her young grandchildren from their mother and discard the haven she has spent most of her life creating. She has on her side all of the weight of Christian truth—a duty to act in the most honorable and loving way toward others. She pitches battle at Damerosehay, insisting that David and Nadine spend a few weeks there with her and the children. Which “truth” will win?
The Bird in the Tree is a quiet book, obviously a product of much time spent in spiritual reflection. There is meaty stuff between its covers—the elusiveness of faith, the difficulty in discovering and living by an objective standard of moral conduct, and yes, the never-ending clash between desire and duty. Alongside the meat is the more lighthearted quest for the history of the Damerosehay house itself and the search for the bird—the spirit of freedom.
I confess The Bird in the Tree moves a little too slowly for my taste and resolves in a way that feels too easy. Goudge’s people also think, feel, and speak more extravagantly than strikes me as normal. Yet the characters, the house, and the seaside are all written richly and the story is reassuring and immensely practical in a spiritual way, without being trite or having that “tacked on” spiritualism so common in Christian fiction. Believe it or not, I’m anxious to see how Goudge tackles the dark problems of the sinful world in the next two novels in the Damerosehay trilogy.
“Her generation had built from without inwards, had put the reality of law and tradition above the reality of personal feeling; but his built from within outwards, the truth of personal feeling must come first; when there was no longer reality in a union, smash the union, never mind what laws were broken or what lives were crippled; live the truth.” (111)
“And you cannot judge the value of what happens to you until many years afterwards. Then you see how one thing led to another and how it was all, even the little trivial things as well as the big ones, somehow necessary.” (177)
“Faith is the belief in something that you don’t understand yet, and beauty is the evidence that the thing is there.” (225)
“I think a woman’s history is very often like one of those old romances that you caught at. . . . You may laugh at them but they were truer to life than many of those psychological novels you young people read nowadays. We women don’t sit half the day and night analyzing our emotions but we do perpetually fall in love out of wedlock, and over and over again we have to fight out the same old battle between love and duty. Human emotions are very monotonous.” (238)
“We think our own sufferings are unique and then we find that everyone else has been through much the same … or worse.” (243)
“Now in those days I had great faith in instinct. It was instinct, I thought, that guided the world aright, that sent the wild birds flying across seas and continents to find their home . . . Instinct, I thought, was the voice of God. … I still think that very often it is, though I realize now that there is such a mixture of good and evil in all we think and are that everything, every instinct and every thought, needs to be tested by the teaching of Christ.” (244)
‘’I had to struggle on by myself to the idea that if truth is the creation of perfection, then it is action and has nothing to do with feeling. And the nearest we can get to creating perfection in this world is to create good for the greatest number, for the community or the family, not just for ourselves; to create for ourselves only means misery and confusion for everybody. That made me see that acting a part is not always synonymous with lying, it is far more often the best way of serving the truth. It is more truthful to act what we should feel if the community is to be well served rather than behave as we actually do feel in our selfish private feelings.” (245)
“In times of storm and tempest, of indecision and desolation, a book already known and loved makes better reading than something new and untried.” (315)
I think it’s safe to say that Americans are fascinated by crime and its aftermath. We certainly like our crime TV. I am sure that at any given time of day Criminal Minds, CSI, Cold Case Files or Forensic Files is running on a cable network. We crave the mystery, the puzzle—all of those little (or even microscopic) pieces that investigators fit together in recreating the crime.
These TV episodes would not be complete without an autopsy or post-mortem scene, starring a scrubs-and-mask clad doctor poking around in all of the gory details. This autopsy is the final word on how the subject died and sheds light on the circumstances that came immediately before and after their death. The autopsy doesn’t lie. The autopsy is probably as brutal and honest and up-close as live humans can get to the reality of death.
A Death in the Family by James Agee strikes me as a novel-as-autopsy. Winner of the 1958 Pulitzer Prize, A Death in the Family delves into what family members feel, think, and do when a loved one dies unexpectedly. It is detailed, psychologically analytical, and unflinchingly honest.
In the middle of a summer’s night in 1915, Jay Follet is called away from his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, to visit his aging father, whom he believes to be dying. The call is a false alarm, and Jay begins his return trip out of the hills back to the city. Along the way the car malfunctions, crashes, and throws Jay to his death.
The novel has an experimental feel, with Jay’s death as the main plot point, the glue that holds the otherwise artistic and poetic text together. The story of Jay’s life and death is told primarily from the perspective of his wife, Mary, and their six-year-old son, Rufus, in a series of vignettes. These episodes cluster into three parts: the last hours Rufus and Mary spent with Jay, the waiting period for Mary as her brother identifies the body, and the funeral.
A Death in the Family is an experience for the senses. Rufus’s memories from his earliest childhood are poetic and dream-like—the play of moonlight on his wall through a lace curtain, his terror at the darkness pressing in on him in his crib, the warmth of his father’s hand as he comes to sit with him, and the low songs from his father’s lips that lull him back to sleep. Agee captures the sound of locusts on summer nights, the cool smoothness of bedsheets and the sharp smell of bacon on a dark morning, and the leathery, papery skin of a one-hundred-year-old woman’s face.
In one exemplary scene, Agee proves his ability to pick apart the complex and conflicting emotions involved in the death of a loved one, giving to each emotion weightiness and validity. In the dark of night, Mary hovers in her kitchen, waiting for her brother to identify Jay’s body in a far-off village. In one moment, the hope of a mistake somewhere bubbles up in her heart and, in the next moment, pops with a nightmarish certainty. Her mind wanders through doubts about herself, her husband, and the reality of how they lived each day as husband and wife. Her Aunt Hannah, who has experienced her own great loss, waits with her. She waits for and wills Mary to give up hope, knowing that prolonging her hope will do her no good. She watches as over several hours realization comes to Mary and Mary chooses to cling to her Catholic faith. Hannah, although herself a Catholic, becomes disgusted and resentful at how quickly and submissively Mary spiritualizes the situation, instead wishing Mary would feel the despair and anger at God that she felt in her own past. The scene is full of real, honest-to-goodness emotions that are at times unpleasant to read.
I was impressed by Agee’s command of the words and his ability to take the reader through every thought and emotion. The novel feels true; whether or not we have lived through this specific tragedy, we have all experienced a sampling of these emotions ourselves.
A Death in the Family is the kind of novel where you get sucked into the spiral of someone’s thoughts. Usually I like that sort of thing—it gives a book a realistic feel—yet at times this book spiraled repetitively, in a way that made me feel trapped. It was not a book I enjoyed; I “appreciated” it, but, for me, it was dark and bitter.
Finishing A Death in the Family felt like an accomplishment—one more Pulitzer checked off the list.
Note: I read A Death in the Family in its original, Pulitzer-winning format. Ironically, the novel was published after the author’s death and publishers had to guess at the ordering of certain sections of the book. It was republished in 2008 with a different format that I am not familiar with.
“I hear my father; I need never fear.
I hear my mother; I shall never be lonely, or want for love.
When I am hungry it is they who provide for me; when I am in dismay, it is they who fill me with comfort.
When I am astonished or bewildered, it is they who make the weak ground firm beneath my soul: it is in them that I put my trust.
When I am sick it is they who send for the doctor; when I am well and happy, it is in their eyes that I know best that I am loved; and it is towards the shining of their smiles that I lift up my heart and in their laughter that I know my best delight.
I hear my father and my mother and they are my giants, my king and my queen, beside whom there are no others so wise or worthy or honorable or brave or beautiful in this world.
I need never fear: nor ever shall I lack for loving-kindness.” (76)
“How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again. You can go home, it’s good to go home, but you never really get all the way home again in your life. And what’s it all for? All I tried to be, all I ever wanted and went away for, what’s it all for?
Just one way, you do get back home. You have a boy or a girl of your own and now and then you remember, and you know how they feel, and it’s almost the same as if you were your own self again, as young as you could remember.” (87)
Does everyone dream of Paris? Or is it just nerdy girls like moi, who have too much imagination and expensive taste? The word “Paris” seems to exude images of baguettes and berets, the Eiffel Tower and river walks and the Tricouleur, and the sounds of accordions and the nasal “Bonjour, Mademoiselle!” I don’t think I’ve ever not dreamed of Paris, and I’ve now had the good fortune of being a pretend Parisienne twice.
As we walked around Paris on our most recent visit, trying to take it all in in a short amount of time, I mentioned off-hand to my husband that I had never eaten street-side at a Parisian café. There’s one—or three—cafés on every corner and in the warm months no one eats inside. The tiny round tables and classic café chairs are crammed along the sidewalk under an awning, impossibly close together, with all of the chairs facing the street. The servers, almost always men, almost always wearing ankle-length aprons tied around their waists, stand at attention beside each door, awaiting your bon plaisir. The idea is to sit awhile, eat awhile, and watch the world go by. Not having done this left a big gap in my Paris “experience.”
The morning after I made this comment we planned to attend a Sunday morning Mass at one cathedral or another. We made this choice partly out of curiosity, neither of us ever having been to a Mass, and partly because many of the Parisian cathedrals offer some sort of concert following the service. On our last trip, we saw the interior of Notre Dame, so I was leaning toward another cathedral, Saint-Sulpice, where the famous organist Daniel Roth plays each Sunday.
Our ride from the hotel on the Métro took us to the loveliest (and, according to a co-worker, the most expensive) section of Paris that we had yet seen. The Sunday morning streets were deserted, the shops and restaurants barred. We rounded a corner and found the Place Saint Sulpice before us. The facades of the buildings lining the square and the cathedral and its towers all glowed in the morning light. The square and, indeed, all of Paris looked freshly washed. A garbage truck rumbled through, but then we were left alone, except for the ever-present strutting pigeons. We sat on one of the benches around the place in front of the cathedral, watched over by an ancient bishop atop the gushing central fountain.
This was the vrai Paris—no tourists (except for us, but we didn’t count). We had time to think, to ruminate on the actuality of being on a different continent, to daydream a little of all we hoped to see in the next couple of weeks. We soaked it in for a few minutes before remembering food. I had figured on picking up a cheap breakfast on-the-go at a boulangerie, as I was used to doing in France. But on Sunday mornings, the possibilities in neighborhood Paris are limited. There was one café open on the square, so this would have to be it if we wanted to make it to Mass on time.
Ét voilà, I found myself in one of my coveted France “experiences.” We jammed ourselves behind one of those serving-tray-sized tables and ordered from a menu so Parisian that it could have come straight from my first French textbook—a croissant and a chocolat for me, an omelette au jambon and café américain for my husband. The waiter was thoroughly Parisian, as well, lest I be disappointed in some aspect of my meal. He was aloof and efficient, yet had his own quirky little songs he hummed to himself as he maneuvered around the tables.
It was beautifully quiet. Locals pedaled by on their bicycles, and a stooped old lady ambled up with her newspaper under her arm and sat down near us. Every once in a while a bus rolled past, plastered with advertisements. My chocolat was parfait; it was a small pot of what tasted like a melted-down bar of milk chocolate. The croissant was huge, buttery, and tender. Here was none of the insanity of tourist season in Europe with elbow-to-elbow, wall-to-wall humans jostling for the best view. This was a moment of serendipity, one of those moments that I wished I could somehow box up and pack in my suitcase for a rainy day.
Soon enough, the bells of Saint Sulpice began a long series of chimes, drawing parishioners to Mass. I felt real sadness at leaving that café and crossing the square, knowing it was one of those things I might never repeat.
Saint Sulpice is Baroque, rather than Gothic like Notre Dame, so it feels much lighter and brighter on the inside. Apparently, the cathedral’s great claim to fame is that it is in the film The Da Vinci Code. An elderly woman gave us bulletins and we walked up the long side aisle to where wooden chairs were grouped around the pulpit, which stood where you can imagine the beams of Jesus’ cross intersecting in the traditional cathedral layout. The worshippers were mostly elderly and well-dressed, but there were a few other obvious tourists scattered throughout.
A young man in khakis and an untucked polo shirt came from behind the choir screen and welcomed us. We sang a couple of hymns and there was a hand-shake time. Members of the congregation went forward to the pulpit to read the Scripture passages. It was all surprisingly “un-Catholic” for a Protestant gal.
The khaki worship leader then presented the congregation with a special treat: the Wycliffe Boys’ Choir of London would be aiding in worship that morning. The boys had filed in earlier in their long white robes, stair-stepped in height and varying in degrees of seriousness, and gathered behind the choir screen. I have long loved the sound of a boys’ or men’s choir singing traditional English songs and hymns, particularly during the Christmas season, but CD recordings and YouTube videos always feel a bit flat. I’ve put it on my mental “bucket list” to hear the Christmas program of Lessons and Carols sung live in an English cathedral.
When the boys began to sing, it was a moment both magical and beautiful. The magic was in the unexpectedness of having one of my ideal experiences partially coming to life. And the beauty—well, I found myself feeling far more emotional than I normally consider myself to be. There is no recording that can do justice to the pure sound of voices raised in a centuries-old stone cathedral, harmonies climbing a hundred feet in the air and filling the cavernous space with sound. The heavy tones of the massive old pipe organ came underneath the singers at the song’s climax and thunderously rolled through the cathedral. I have many problems with the Catholic religion, but one of the things I think it inadvertently gets right is the awe factor. Often I think that the sanctuaries and their statues point to men or the “Church” itself, but the awesome majesty and spine-tingling beauty of the music in that moment pointed me heavenward. As when I first heard five thousand people sing a hymn together, I found myself imagining what worship must sound like in heaven.
After that experience, I was flying pretty high. I floated through the sermon, which, other than the speaker’s priestly robes, I also thought remarkably un-Catholic. It became obvious to me that I don’t know that much about Catholics. We watched the distribution of the wine and the wafers with interest, captivated by the young tourist who joined the wafer line out of curiosity (or deviousness) and walked away with the wafer, inspecting it in her hand until an old man rushed at her and told her to eat it and, when she moved too slowly, grabbed her arm and forced her hand to her mouth. Evidently the locals are fervent believers.
The organ concert that followed was enjoyable but, for me, nothing to compare to the music of the boys’ choir. After joining in the polite applause for the organist, we emerged into the sunshine of lunch-time Paris.
We spent a bright afternoon wandering through the Jardin du Luxembourg and around the Panthéon and the Sorbonne, but my Paris dreams had already been fulfilled during our morning on the Place Saint Sulpice.
A few weeks ago my husband and I sat in the heart of charming old Rome, not enjoying our dinner. It was past eight, the heat was down, and Italia began slowing down around us. We were seated under cutesy lace umbrellas on the stony pavement of a (relatively) quiet side-street. The servers bustled around us, a horse-drawn carriage or two clopped past, and I caught at least two romance languages being spoken nearby. It was the picture of charm. Only it wasn’t charming.
The man between myself and the oscillating fan smoked like a chimney. The two French girls seated next to us argued tensely over a Facebook picture. The poor waiter was being pulled in ten directions at once, but never in ours. The family at the table behind us had a toddler who didn’t like waiting forty minutes for his food . . . and yes, the food was ridiculously slow in coming. As the evening wore on, it grew harder and harder to not pick up on the tension in the people around us. So much for a relaxing dinner experience on our first night in Rome.
I have found that international travel is not for the faint of heart. It in no way resembles the leisurely pace of roaming the U.S. by car, stopping when you need a bathroom or just when the mood strikes. It does not have the assurance of a Hampton Inn at the next exit, or at the worst, ten more miles down the road, or the fallback of Mickey D’s for dinner if there’s nothing more appealing. Since I never flew overseas until I was twenty-nine, I suppose I was bound to be startled by the experience. From trying to do without a night’s sleep while sitting upright on an airplane, to racing between train platforms with only one minute to spare while dragging ten tons of luggage, or to losing your husband in the Roman metro because he’s more daring at jumping on a train with closing doors than you are, international travel is exhausting and, at times, intimidating. At its worst, it’s the stuff of nightmares. *Cue scene where American couple arrives in Italian city to discover that their hotel reservation has been cancelled and the payment gone because the travel agency went bankrupt the day before.*
We (and by we, I mean semi-amateur travelers like myself) expect Europe to look like the pictures. We expect it to be like all of those fabulous international thrillers we’ve watched. We probably expect too much. We expect it to be perfect.
Bon matin, Paris!
I have found that travel perfection, like perfection in anything, rarely exists. Europe is … often dirty, smelly, and—foreign. But all of this is not to say that we can’t or don’t have a marvelous time. When I look back on our most recent trip, I see a pattern. The first few hours in a new city feel like a let-down. We just spent over ten hours crammed onto a plane and all I want is Paris! Instead, you get innumerable shuttle buses, the inside of a jumbo airport, long lines, and a dingy train station. Oh, and exhaustion. Or, you fly into Italy after a day spent hopping over Europe and there is no room in the inn (see above). All of the chaos combines to mar that perfect Europe image you had floating through your mind. Somehow, though, over the space of a few hours, your eyes and the rest of your body follows to adjust to the strangeness around you. You can let that perfection go and accept the beauty of what is actually there.
Europe is lovely. It is the land of intriguing people just like us who are really not at all like us. It is a land of dreams (for me and a lot of other literary types, at least); it has castles and mountains and villages—oh my! It has an old soul and piles of stories to be told. Its loveliness is best absorbed over time and sometimes, honestly, it’s loveliest when viewed in memory and out of the broiling sun and away from that garbage stench. But there are definite moments while you are traveling when the perfection that you’ve released comes back, when you’re not exactly looking for it—moments that feel like serendipity.
Instead of retelling in laundry-list fashion what we did and saw each day in Europe, I’m going to recall moments of serendipity, when all of the vacation magic came together to make a perfect moment. I will be breaking this post up into a series. But here is one sweet memory before I go.
My first instructive vacation-magic-moment happened on our first France trip in 2013. Sometimes you don’t realize to what extent you have anticipated an event until it happens. I studied French for four years in high school under a fantastic teacher that taught me how to get around Paris from my desk in the middle of Indiana. I have known for years what the best sights are in Paris, where they are located on the city map, and how to get there on the Métro. I then spent four more years studying French in college. I guess I had the Paris thing pretty well built-up in my mind. But when we first visited Paris, I still wasn’t prepared for how magical it would be.
We flew to Paris overnight, leaving Atlanta some time around 8 p.m. the night before, suffered trying to sleep upright in the back row of the airplane, and then sat on the tarmac for an additional hour at Charles de Gaulle where you can’t see the Eiffel Tower. It was cloudy and drizzly on the ground and about to rain cats and dogs. Our hotel for that trip was at the airport, so we had a forty-minute train ride into the city. We quickly discovered that Europeans do not spend a lot of money keeping their infrastructure in ship-shape. The train was grungy, the surrounding embankments covered in graffiti, and I STILL couldn’t see the Eiffel Tower. Soon the train headed underground and we arrived in a giant station—Châtelet Les Halles, I believe—one of those places I have dubbed “European transportation purgatory.” We switched trains here to take ourselves to the Louvre.
Friends, there is no magic like coming up the stairs out of the train station and catching your first breathtaking glimpse of a place of which you have dreamed for half your life, finding yourself in the heart of the City of Light. Those old walls of the Louvre palace in front of me, the Palais Royal at my back—I couldn’t even see the front of the Louvre with its glass pyramid or the Tuileries from that vantage point, but even now I remember being nearly in tears from that first sight of Paris. (Don’t tell me it was just the exhaustion.)
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 2004.
“I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face.”
Gilead. I read that word and I hear that old, slow, mournful tune in my head. ‘There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole…’
A couple of years ago, I set myself the task of reading all of the Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction. I’ve since discovered high and low points in American literature; I’ve discovered my favorite American novel and I’ve read some that made me wonder what kind of insanity the selection committee suffered from. But Gilead—the 2004 prize-winner by Marilynne Robinson—is wholly unlike any book I have ever read. There is little I could say about this lovely little novel that could do it justice and I fear any attempt to write about it will cheapen what it has to say. But I will give it a try.
Let me start by saying that Gilead will not be for everyone. It is a slow, sweet meditation on fathers and sons and on the meaning of grace, bestowed both by earthly fathers and a Heavenly One. If you never have deep spiritual ruminations of your own or have no sympathy with someone that clings tightly to their faith, Gilead will not be for you. If you need a book to move and have lots of things happen, Gilead will not be for you. But if you have patience and a yearning to find balm and beauty in what you read, Gilead will richly reward you.
The premise of Gilead is a simple one: minister John Ames, 76, of Gilead, Iowa, believes he is soon to die of heart failure and so begins writing to his young (seven-year-old) son. The words are his memoirs, but more than that, they contain the knowledge of life that Ames had hoped to pass to his son as he grew and the conversations he wishes he could share with his son in his adulthood. Ames, through writing to his son, revisits the many graces of God on his life and discovers the grace that he can pass on through his own daily living.
‘I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.’
‘For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering that you’re only a little fellow now and when you’re a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any of a number of reasons. Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there’s an intimacy in it. That’s the truth.’
There are few ripples in the smoothness of John Ames’ reflections. The ripples that are there come in the form of tension between the fathers and sons in Ames’ family who, as Ames relates, each hold to their Christianity in different ways. His grandfather, the first minister named John Ames, moved west from Maine to Kansas to join in the abolition fight under John Brown. His son, the second John Ames and the narrator’s father, despised the ruthlessness of his father’s faith and turned toward pacifism. John Ames, our narrator, finds he has disagreements with both his father’s and grandfather’s faith.
The nature of Ames’ own faith is tested by his relationship with his godson and namesake, John Ames Boughton. “Jack” is mentioned casually early on, and the main element of suspense in the novel builds as Ames tells us about Jack in trickles and spurts. At the heart of his struggle with Jack is the hard fact that Jack once had what Ames longed for, and then threw it away. Jack carries himself in a way that gets under his godfather’s skin, and the whole experience leads Ames to dig deep into his understanding of grace—is it all-sufficient?
‘Sinners are not all dishonorable people, not by any means. But those who are dishonorable never really repent and never really reform. Now, I may be wrong here. No such distinction occurs in Scripture. And repentance and reformation are matters of the soul which only the Lord can judge. But, in my experience, dishonor is recalcitrant. When I see it, my heart sinks, because I feel I have no help to offer a dishonorable person. I know the deficiency may be my own altogether.’
I don’t cry when I read books, but I did while reading this one. At the risk of sounding like Anne Shirley, Gilead is just achingly beautiful. Reading it was a wonderful surprise, a balm for the literary soul who wonders if there is any good left in “good” literature. John Ames—a fiercely Christian man who also manages to be gentle and unobtrusive—will be with me for a long time. He and his little book remind me that “sometimes [it is] as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light.’ And with him, in his own quiet way, I say, “that is a remarkable thing to consider.”
‘You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.’
‘A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. It has to be heard in that way. There are three parties to it, of course, but so are there even to the most private thought—the self that yields the thought, the self that acknowledges and in some way responds to the thought, and the Lord. That is a remarkable thing to consider.’
‘You never do know the actual nature even of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature.’
‘When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? . . . If you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate.’
‘I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.’
‘In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.’
‘Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing.’