I’m going to mostly talk about The Maze at Windermere, by Gregory Blake Smith, but I also read The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz (which I’m shocked to report you can buy at Powell’s).  The Spellman Files I picked up at a book sale for $1 last year, and I’ve been kind of on and off reading it every now and then and finally finished it this week. So yeah… I can’t strongly recommend it.

But I’m thinking about both books because I was talking to someone about books generally last week and she told me she hates books without epilogues. She wants absolutely everything wrapped up in a bow. I kind of agree with her and I kind of don’t, and I actually disliked the endings of both of these books for that reason. Smith’s Windermere leaves you hanging, with no clear cut ending at all, whereas Lutz, as far as I’m concerned, takes things too far having not only an epilogue but also another chapter AFTER the epilogue to tie things up even further. Both frustrated me. I want a beginning middle and end, but I also don’t need to know what happened to every character until the day they died.Where do you stand dear reader?

 

The Maze at Windermere is actually five stories, wrapped into one novel with intersecting themes and all five stories take place at different times in Newport, RI. First, the story of Sandy Alison, a retired tennis pro working in Newport in 2011. Then back to 1896 for the story of Franklin Drexel, a gay man trying to social climb by marrying well in Newport and keep his real preferences secret. Then 1863, to see a young Henry James (the novelist) practicing the art of observation and working on being a writer during the Civil War. Fourth, the story of Major Ballard, a British officer stationed in Newport during the Revolutionary War. And finally, in 1692, the story of Prudence Selwyn, a Quaker settler.

I most enjoyed Alison, Drexel, and Selwyn, although the young Henry James had his moments as well and I marked several of his (fictional) thoughts (I couldn’t stand Major Ballard, who is much less sympathetic than the others):

[T]here was between us, I felt, a fellowship silently acknowledged, and which did not partake of romance but rather of a yet rarer quality: the colloquy of two souls who recognized one another, who found themselves in the ordinary world to be obscurely trapped, yet in each other’s presence to be free.

Young Henry James’ story begins when he starts hanging around a resort hotel to observe human behavior there as material for possible stories. While there he meets a young woman who turns out to be much more than the stereotype he crafted of her, but there’s no romance between them, James is sort of asexual.

Maybe because Selwyn was the only female voice in the book, I marked a number of passages from her.  Selwyn’s mother and father have died, and at 15 no one is quite sure whether to try to have another Friend adopt her and her younger sister, or try to marry her off to a man more than twice her age. I enjoyed the chapters with Selwyn the most, having lost my own mother, I identified with some of what she was feeling:

We talk’d of our old Selves, and Jane said it was as if they had been set adrift and lost over the Horizon. This Picture work’d on me greatly, as I think it did her. Our old Selves as if in a Tub, set upon the Waters and drifting vanishingly away even as watch’d from the Shore. O! to what unknown Countries, and to what Centuries hence?

It does sometimes feel like you’ve traveled away from yourself, become some new person after you’ve survived something life changing. And yet, somehow your old self is still out there, gone, but not forgotten. How simple life would have been for that girl.

Everyone in the novel is trying to live within society, but all five characters struggle with a desire to live outside, Drexel for example, faced with few options for living within the role he’s created for himself in Newport considers what and who he is without the mask:

[W]hat was he if not gilding? He was the very soul of gilding – Frank Drexel the Gilded Man! And yet, and yet . . . Might it not be possible even for a gilded man? If there was, after all, nothing else! To step into the shadows of the demimonde and stay there. To step behind the arras, to be done with duplicity, to enter the maze of who one was never to leave!

In the end, there’s a lot left unsaid about the characters, but for the most part they’ve either figured out how to get what they want within the bounds of what Newport society of their time allows, or they’re contemplating real escape. I had a bit of hard time getting into the whole, five stories switching around style of the book, but ultimately enjoyed this read.

Currently working on: A House Full of Females and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Time to find someone more fiction; everything I have out of the library right now is non-fiction.