Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Maze at Windermere

Title:  The Maze at Windermere
Author:  Gregory Blake Smith
Publication Information:  Viking. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0735221928 / 978-0735221925

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "He was trying to explain to her how he'd gotten to be where he was."

Favorite Quote:  "Here's a budding novelist's question:  Can the appearance of people suggest their reality?"

It takes a while for the realization to hit in this book. It is not about the characters or the times. This book's main feature is its location of Newport, Rhode Island, a playground of the super wealthy. Located in Narragansett Bay, Newport is a seaside community probably best known for its now historical mansions, the summer "cottages" of the wealthy including the Vanderbilts and the Astors.

Currently, Newport has three areas, including Bellevue Avenue with its many mansions, on the National Historical Landmark Districts. Many of the homes are also individually listed as Nationally Historical Landmarks and are at times open as museums to the public. The book also features Newport Casino, which is not a gambling establishment but an athletic complex now home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

The book brings this environment to life through five different time periods and five different characters from 1692 to 2011. The voices the author chooses are of characters that are at the periphery of the social elite that make up Newport society. An orphan Quaker girl. A aging tennis pro. A handsome man wanting to secure his place before age overtakes. An author at the beginning of his career.

Through the individual stories, the book reaches into conversations about race, gender equality, the taboos on sexual orientation through time, economic disparity. The book makes a great effort to present the views held at the time period relevant to each story - not an easy feat. Underlying all of that is the place which endures. It changes shapes and appearance, but it endures.

In some ways, the book reminds me of David Mitchell's work. The story lines spread over time gradually imploding onto to a central theme. However, for me, this book does not reach the same level of intensity or connection as Mr. Mitchell's work.

The "maze" of title is a literal and figurative one. One of the mansions has a hedge maze leading to the ocean. The structure of the book itself resembles a maze. From chapter to chapter, the books moves between the time periods and the characters with no visible connection. However, name and places recur, creating a sense of connection. Eventually, the books seems to fold on itself, somewhat reaching the heart of the maze.

It is this very construct that is the strength and weakness of the book. I started it and put it down. I picked it up, found myself lost, and started reading from the beginning. I put it down. I picked it up, found myself lost, and started reading from the beginning again. Finally, I went back, read the book description again and more carefully, started paying attention to the time period in the chapter titles, and began again.

After a while, two things happen. Each character and time period acquires its own unique tone, and I realize that the book is more about the place. Finally, I settle into and finish the story, but it takes work. The format is a challenge.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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