The wounds inflicted by bad parenting, the complexities of a flawed but enduring marriage, and Denmark’s resistance to the Nazis: three compelling themes awkwardly yoked together in this ambitious latest from Gutcheon (More Than You Know, 2000, etc.).
The author’s gift for plunging readers directly into her story is evident on the first page, as three siblings sort through the belongings of their parents, who have died together in the family’s summer home. Gutcheon then moves back to trace the history of Leeway Cottage in Maine and the miserable childhood of Sydney Brant, anxious daughter of cold, disapproving Candace. In 1938, Sydney falls in love with expatriate Danish pianist Laurus Moss, drawn to his warmth and delighted to shock her snobbish mother by marrying the grandson of a baker. The newlyweds spend a happy summer at Leeway in 1941, but when Laurus leaves a pregnant Sydney that fall to aid the European war effort, the narrative takes a sharp, startling turn. Sydney drops out almost completely for a hundred pages devoted to Laurus’s family, particularly his sister Nina, one of the many Danes who risk their lives and save nearly all of the nation’s Jews. By the time Nina is liberated from Ravensbruck concentration camp and Laurus returns to America, the grim Danish section has laid the groundwork for an entirely different perspective on Sydney. The unloved girl who seemed so appealing is revealed as a damaged, angry and selfish woman, though Gutcheon deftly drops in a few admirable acts to remind us no one is entirely good or all bad. Laurus remains steadfastly loyal, to the bewilderment of their three children as the narrative moves with increasing speed and selectiveness through the subsequent half-century. A harrowing account of Nina’s ordeal at Ravensbruck makes an odd precursor to the final chapter at Leeway. Yet Gutcheon’s insights are so keen, her sympathy for all her characters so contagious, that the story’s imperfect structure can almost be forgiven.
There’s more going on here than the narrative can comfortably contain, but Gutcheon gets an A for effort and a solid B for achievement.