Monthly Archives: May 2015

Book Review: “The House of Hawthorne,” By Erika Robuck

Can love bloom between two artists without causing their art to wither and die? That is one of the more intriguing aspects of Erika Robuck’s poignant historical novel, The House of Hawthorne.

Sophie Peabody was a promising painter who was hindered by debilitating headaches. Her family sent her to Cuba in the hope that the warm climate might cure her. There she nurtured her talent as a painter, while also writing The Cuba Journal. She returned to Massachusetts invigorated, but her headaches eventually would return. In the throes of illness, she met Nathaniel Hawthorne when he came calling on her sister, Elizabeth. Sophie and Nathanial were lovestruck. Robuck described the intensity of their feelings in this passage: “When I enter, Hawthorne’s eyes meet mine, and he rises. By the holy angels, I feel my soul at once aflame and reaching through my breast toward him.”

Their courtship lasted more than four years. Nathaniel  would not marry  Sophie until he could support her financially. He joined Brook Farm, a transcendentalist community and married Sophie in 1842. Their love blossomed in splendidly rendered scenes.  Sophie worried that their marital bliss was impeding Nathaniel’s writing. When their first daughter, Una, was born, Sophie observed she had neither the time nor the energy to paint. They had two more children and then moved from home to home as they struggled to support a family. They eventually settled in the Wayside in Concord. Among their circle of friends were New England scions the Alcott family, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau. 

The publication of Hawthorne’s classic novel, The Scarlett Letter, in 1850, and The House of the Seven Gables in 1851, vaulted him into an exalted placae in literature, but did not ease the family’s chronic financial struggles. it was interesting to learn that published authors had it no easier in the 1800s than they do today. 

This is not the story of Hathrorne’s literary talents, but rather it is about the enduring and almost spiritual love between Nathanial and Sophie. Spanning several decades and encompassing their travels to England, Portugal and Italy, their journey was littered with tragedy: the loss of Sophie’s brother and parents, Nathaniel’s parents, and a deadly illness that befalls their eldest daugther.  Through it all their love endured.

What carries this story is Robuck’s brilliant prose, which brings Sophie to life as  a strong, intelligent character: devoted to her husband, yet independent of spirit and an artist of immense talent.


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Book Review: “A Spool of Blue Thread,” by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler’s 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, is a departure of sorts for her. While it explores the themes of family dysfunction familiar to fans of Tyler’s work, she widens the lens in this multi-generational family saga.

The Whitshanks seem like a family everyone can admire. Red is a second-generation home builder who owns a construction company. Abby, his wife, is a retired social worker who cannot resist trying to fix everybody with whom she comes into contact. The present-day action in the novel centers on the failing health of Red and Abby, who are in their early 70s. Red suffers a heart attack and is beginning to go deaf. Abby suffers from occasional memory loss and is prone to wandering the neighborhood while her family searches for her.

Concerned about the safety of their parents, the siblings rally around them. The loyal son, Stem, who is not a Whitshank by birth, his do-gooder wife, Nora, and their children move in with the Whitshanks. When their rootless and unpredictable son, Denny, shows up to pitch in with his parents’ care, it stirs smoldering hostilites in the family.

The Whitshanks’ spacious, well-appointed home on Bouton Road serves as both a character and a metaphor for this family, in which appearances and myths mask secrets and resentments.  Junior, Red’s father, built the house to his exacting standards for a wealthy family, the Brills. Through a bit of chicanery, he convinced the Brills to sell the house to him. Like a lot of Tyler’s characters, Junior learns that when he attains what he craves, it doesn’t make him happy.

This is a topic Tyler has explored throughout her body of work–the restlessness that inflicts family members as they sacrifice their ambitions and their individuality in the service of family harmony. 

In this novel, a catastrophic event is the trigger that Tyler uses to send the narrative back in time. Tyler peels back the layers of the Whitshank family, first by exploring the events that led to the relationship between Red and Abby. There is a beautifully rendered scene in which Red wins Abby’s affections away from a rebellious boyfriend. There is a passage about Red’s father, Junior, who is entrapped by a precocious 13-year-old girl into a relationship that causes him to flee North Carolina, but eventually brings about their marriage. There is also a quiet battle waged between Junior and his wife over the color of a porch swing he has lovingly restored for her. These types of passages, which date all the way back to the Great Depression, are not typical in Tyler’s novel, but there is a comon thread of wishes, aspirations, pretensions, and deceit. 

In the end Tyler provides a glimmer of hope that Denny might turn his life around, but, like life, the finale is ambiguous. This is what I like about Tyler’s endings, a true-to-life quality. 

Ths is one of the most ambitious and satisfying of Tyler’s novels, and that is saying a lot. 

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