Haunted by possibilities, depressed by realities, an English professor finds herself surprised by love in Densmore’s engrossing debut romance.
Life is losing its luster for 39-year-old Elizabeth “Ellie” Purnell, a teacher at a Wisconsin college. Draped in expensive clothes, wearing $500 shoes, and driving a Jaguar, Ellie seemingly has it all: “Being impeccably dressed gave her a sense of control. It was part of the persona. You know, the woman whose life is perfect. Professor Purnell, the town prodigy…ageless, brilliant, witty, reserved, and without flaw.” It’s a charade. Her hunky but alcoholic husband, Alec, ignores her work; he isn’t interested in her scholarly articles and has no clue she’s a poet. Her sweet, beloved 14-year-old son, Jordan, has diabetes. And Ellie fears she will never match her father James Lawson’s academic success. Despite her “unbearable urge to escape,” she stays, bolstered by duty, family (especially her younger sister, Becca), dance excursions to Chicago with feisty American lit prof (and lesbian) Marta, and a daily 5 a.m. run during which she calms herself by saying, “Be a funnel, not a vessel.” Then chaos arrives in the form of visiting professor Liam Curran, a famous Irish/English literary critic. The charismatic scholar and academic star insists on a series of debates with Ellie about literature, starting with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s a dream come true and a terrifying challenge for Ellie, who is thrown by Liam’s intensity and intimate knowledge of all her work: he’s read seemingly everything she’s ever written, even an undergraduate paper. Densmore’s beautifully crafted romance vibrates with sexual tension and passion familiar to fans of Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters. Among readers, poets and scholars might relate to the indulgent dream of having one’s words reach and affect a true soul mate. While the flashback chapters to Ellie’s student days—when she passionately lived with self-absorbed musician Dylan Ross, a Percy Bysshe Shelley–type—break the narrative flow, they are worth it for a terrific scene in which she violently cuts off his long hair. The surprising, bittersweet conclusion satisfies the hope that true love never dies.
Splendid romance from an author to watch.