Another intense exploration of family ties, doomed love and existential questing from talented, risk-taking Lent (Lost Nation, 2001, etc.).
Investigating a campfire in the woods behind his Vermont home, 43-year-old Hewitt Pearce finds spaced-out Jessica Kress, clearly under severe mental and emotional strain. Hewitt can empathize; he’s still brooding obsessively over Emily Soren, who walked out on him more than 20 years ago. Hewitt, who’s built a solid career as a high-art blacksmith (his forge bears a sign warning clients, “YOUR COMMISSION IS NOT MY VISION”), has frustrated several girlfriends, who have learned that they can’t compete with Emily’s memory. When Hewitt reads that Emily’s husband has died in a car crash, he races to see his lost love, who shuts her door in his face. Yet soon Emily is phoning—mostly to scream at him, but her diatribes provide new insights into why the teenaged lovers fell apart. Meanwhile, Hewitt and the considerably younger Jessica are forming what seems to be a father-daughter bond. She eventually reveals that she has a family link to the tragic early life of Hewitt’s father, a famous painter who lost his young wife and baby daughter in a fire but went on to make a new life with Hewitt’s mother. As always, Lent writes compellingly of people untangling their pasts and striving to elucidate their connection to the world as well as each other. Some of the best scenes show Hewitt reaching a new understanding of his powerful mother and estranged sister. His relationship with Emily is more problematic; she initially appears so self-absorbed and self-righteous that readers may wonder what Hewitt ever saw in her. Jessica, by contrast, is rendered in idealized, slightly schematic terms as a fragile visionary healed by immersion in the natural rhythms of Hewitt’s Vermont community.
The ecstatic closing pages will strike some as over-the-top, but sensitively developed characters and gorgeous prose will keep most admirers of serious American fiction engaged in this moving, though flawed novel.