That proverb about not judging a book by its cover proved itself true once again with the beautiful, moving story inside these plain brown boards.
It's one of the best books I've read all year, and I kept putting it
down to marvel at Dorothy Canfield Fisher's characters and their story. I found my battered old copy on the shelves of Becker's Books, which almost overflows an old house on Houston's west side. It's the kind of bookstore that rewards patient trolling through the shelves, particularly in the dimly-lit alcoves. As I moved slowly along, it was of course Dorothy Canfield's name that caught my eye. I knew nothing about this 1922 novel, not even the title, which naturally didn't stop me from buying it, since her books turn up so rarely. I was very pleased later to find that this is a first edition.
With no dust-jacket and no cover copy, I truly had no idea what the story was about when I started it. I was reminded again how rare that is. With new books, I usually know something about them - outlines of plot, details of character, whatever I glean from the covers. Here I knew nothing, and I had the most delightful feeling of discovering a story, watching it unroll before me with no idea where it was taking me, or the characters. And I haven't read enough of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's fiction to be certain how it would end.
For those who would like to discover this book for themselves, there will be spoilers below. I don't think it counts as a spoiler though to say this is a wonderful book, and you should read it!
It opens in 1893, with a young boy, Neale Crittenden, just off to play shinny in the streets with his friends. He lives in Union Hall, New Jersey, with his parents. Neale attends a private school, but his whole life is taken up with sports and games. Though he has loving and attentive parents, he lives very much in and by himself, in his own world. I was just getting used to Neale and his world, when the next section of the book opened in France, where a young American girl named Marise Allen has arrived with her parents to live in Bayonne, near the Spanish border. Her father is the sales representative of an American company selling farm machinery. Really, however, they have come because Marise's mother wants to escape her provincial American life. Having read a lot of novels and poetry, Mrs. Allen has come to Europe to find Culture and Life - and perhaps Love. Too busy with these great things to care for her child, she leaves Marise to the Basque servants. Old Jeanne in particular loves Marise like her own daughter, but she and the others despise Mrs. Allen. Like her neighbors, they laugh at her behind her back for her laziness and for her too-obvious flirtations. Marise, alone and vulnerable, picks up some very unfortunate ideas from them about men and relations between the sexes. When her mother's imprudence leads to a great tragedy for the family, no one realizes how deeply it affects her young daughter, least of all Marise herself.
The story then moves back and forth between Neale and Marise. In America, Neale moves through school and into college at Columbia, where he for a time finds his life's purpose in football. His summers are spent in West Adams, Massachusetts, where his grandfather runs the family lumber mill. Drawn to the work from childhood, Neale joins the lumber company where his father works after graduation. He quickly becomes one of its rising stars, but suddenly he finds himself facing the question: what is he working for? What is he meant to be doing with his life? He gives up his job to travel, hoping to find an answer. Meanwhile, Marise has sought refuge in music, studying the piano and hoping to make a career as a professional musician. Eventually, her studies take her to Rome, where she meets Neale one fateful morning.
I loved so many things about this book. At first I worried about Neale, whom I thought neglected by his parents. Their close loving marriage seemed to leave little room for him. It was only later in the book that I realized his parents, in best Dorothy Canfield Fisher fashion, were leaving Neale room to grow and develop, to find his own way. The chapter where Neale discovers his parents' library and falls in love with books, starting with Great Expectations, was a complete delight. Among his other attractions as a hero, he is a wonderful bookworm. The senior Crittendens also give Neale the example of a happy, balanced partnership. Once Neale is old enough, his father accepts a position in Central America, and his parents joyfully set off on their travels. This is what they always wanted to do, they explain to their son, and now they can - leaving the conventional Yankee grandfather aghast, and blaming Neale's mother for this flightiness.
I thought Neale's story was much more interesting than Marise's, but then I realized that's because Marise's life is so narrow, hemmed in by her life in a small provincial French town, in a convent school. I wondered how much Dorothy Canfield Fisher was drawing on her own experiences in writing Marise's. Like Neale, Marise has to find her way into her own life (a phrase that DCF uses), but her first steps into that life come so much later than his. I had a good idea where those steps were going to take them, when I learned that both Neale and Marise had roots in Vermont - the Paradise to which Dorothy Canfield Fisher returned again and again in her books. In fact, Marise has an Aunt Hetty, clear kin to the Putneys in Understood Betsy. As lovely as the ending of this book is, I do wish there was a sequel, set in Vermont. I'd love to meet Neale and Marise again.