Friday, January 25, 2019

The Amazing Maze at Windermere

The Maze at Windermere: A NovelYesterday I had the distinct pleasure of listening to Canadian scholar Elaine Newton, giddy as a school girl so overawed was she by his imaginative bent, quiz author Gregory Blake Smith about his latest novel, "The Maze at Windermere." My favorite reviewer, Ron Charles at the Washington Post, called Smith's book "staggeringly brilliant," and though I'll admit it took me a little bit longer to arrive at the same conclusion, arrive I did.

I miss school so much! If I had been reading this in a college classroom - Smith teaches creative writing at Carleton College - I would have appreciated it much sooner, picking up on all of the literary allusions sprinkled throughout. It took hearing Mr. Smith read each of the five voices, in their distinct vernacular, that tell this convoluted, maze-like tale spanning three centuries, to hammer home the realization of the author's incredible feat. Like Ms. Newton I kept wondering, "how did he do it?"

The five individual but interconnected stories all take place within the same few blocks of Newport, Rhode Island, beginning in 2011 and rolling backward to the 1600's. Each tale is anchored by a narrator facing a moral conundrum involving love, money, status, and agency, or lack thereof. Each will make decisions that cause others pain, some inadvertently, some with evil intent.
 I found it especially revealing that, of the five main characters, (four male), the strongest one is Prudence. A fifteen-year-old girl with a woman's worries, Prudy belongs to a Quaker community. Her father is missing at sea, her mother dead, and she is responsible for baby sister Dorcas, a home yet no money for food or fuel, and an enslaved child named Ashes, burdens that weigh heavily on her mind.

In the 1700's we have the story of Major Ballard, a conniving, self-important Brit who lusts after a young woman, the daughter of a Jewish businessman with whom he has a difficult relationship. In the 1800's we meet Franklin, an artistic fellow who yearns for a permanent place in Newport's highest society. Though his penchant is for men, he and his female benefactors scheme to arrange a marriage of convenience with a naïve widow, the owner and creator of the maze at Windermere. 

A fascinating section introduces readers to a young Henry James at the budding of his writing career. Some readers will pick up on the allusions to "Daisy Miller," but I don't think any of us in Thursday's audience saw the tie-in to "Wings of the Dove." Thank you Mr. Smith!
And then there's Sandy, the beautiful male specimen who never quite made it out of the top fifty on the pro-tennis circuit but is sought after among the jet set of Newport for his teaching and sexual skills. As he insinuates himself among the women at Windermere, heir to the estate Alice, who suffers from cerebral palsy and severe depression, her best friend and companion, jewelry artist Aisha, and sister-in-law Margo, one begins to wonder just who's playing whom.

This novel is an English major's dream! Patience may be needed at first but once you've gotten used to the various narrative conventions you'll be avidly jumping back and forth among stories, curious to find out how Franklin or Prudy are faring. Newton told us that the maze is a metaphor for life and, of course, that makes sense. We often get lost along the way. False starts, dead ends, and rebounds are all par for the course as we navigate the lives we've made. But the biggest mystery of all may be that of the workings of the human heart. And in this realm, Gregory Blake Smith shows generosity to all of his characters.

1 comment:

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