Monday, February 5, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith

I received this book from Netgalley for free. This did not influence my review.

The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith is a richly layered historical novel set in Newport, Rhode Island, with interwoven tales taking place during multiple time periods. Each individual story is unique with a well-developed protagonist and compelling narrative. They come together only because of the setting and occasional references to earlier-living characters by the later-living ones. And yet, each of them has in common a yearning for love (or something) and social advancement (or at least security).

Colonial period: A young Quaker girl at the brink of womanhood has to find a way to support herself, her young sibling, and a slave after the death of her mother and loss of her father at sea. Caring members of her community believe she should marry. An older widower is more than willing to step up and wed her. But she balks at a loveless marriage. She has to come up with a bold plan of her own.

Revolutionary War period: A British solder/spy becomes obsessed with the beautiful daughter of a Jewish merchant. In order to have her (not to marry), he is willing to behave dishonorably despite his position as an officer, to lie, even to murder. Clearly dealing with a sociopath, this narrative grows increasingly unpleasant, a counterpoint to the poignant, sometimes disturbing, but generally gentle progress of the other stories. I always cringed during these sections and was glad to get back to the others.

Civil War period: A young Henry James embarks on a mission to train himself to be an observant recorder of the beau monde in Newport as a prelude to a writing career. However, he starts by observing a beautiful, free-spirited girl and, before he knows what’s happening, he is drawn into an unexpected friendship. As the friendship turns toward romance, he wants nothing more than to flee, to the consternation of all involved.

Gilded Age: A social climbing charmer of less than modest means recognizes that he will soon age out of his pretty-boy, jester persona and be dropped by the society that now finds him amusing. He must marry up. Fortunately, he has been adopted as a project by Mrs. Belmont, the former Mrs. Vanderbilt, who rules supreme in Newport society. He is paired with a wealthy widow and is surprised to discover he can respect and even like her. But, he is gay–a fact that must, at all costs, be hidden.

And modern day: An aging professional tennis player, an almost-was, is making a living as a tennis pro at a Newport resort, but is dissatisfied with just about everything. He’s a nice guy, but that has been identified as his weakness. He’s taken up by a wealthy married woman, then has a fling with an artist who lives in the same mansion. He learns that their world revolves around a young woman who is the sister-in-law to his mistress and the employer/friend of the artist he thinks he would prefer to be with. The sister-in-law has cerebral palsy and depression and calls herself the crazy heiress. He’d rather avoid her at first, but slowly his world begins to revolve around her as well.

The author does a fine job turning the spotlight on love, lust, and money–and the interplay among all three. He also does a fine job of defining each character and making them distinct. Almost too fine. This is one of those multi-charactered books that jumps abruptly from story to story. At the beginning, it’s annoying. Just as I’m being drawn into someone’s world, I’m yanked out and have to start over again. Along about the third narrative, I was irritated enough to consider giving up. By the time I got back to the first storyline again, I was wondering if I cared enough to read such a disjointed book. But I found I did care enough. And the writing made me keep going. Eventually, I became more pleased to return to each character than I was annoyed to be jolted from a storyline.

This is one of those ultimately very satisfying novels that rewards a little bit of patience.

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