More strong, thoughtful fiction from Lent (A Peculiar Grace, 2007, etc.) about family ties and the hold of the past on protagonists pondering their direction into the future.
Henry Dorn, 55, has come to Amsterdam in 1922, 18 months after the death of his beloved wife Olivia and troubled son Robert in an automobile accident. His two daughters are grown women with families of their own; he’s mildly estranged from his harsh mother; and his home in Elmira, N.Y., and a summer house in the Finger Lakes district are painful for him without Olivia. There seems no reason not to look for new experiences in Holland, from which his ancestors emigrated centuries ago. On the ride across the Atlantic he meets Lydia Pearce, a sophisticated, slightly younger woman who lives independently on an income from her family’s sawmills. Lent’s skillfully multilayered narrative weaves together the story of Henry and Lydia’s three-month affair in Amsterdam with his memories of his joyful marriage, of bitter conflict with his son after Robert returned from the World War with a morphine habit, of his hardscrabble childhood in a Nova Scotia fishing village, from which he escaped to Brown University and a career teaching at a women’s college. Henry’s ease with strong women is one of the things that attracts Lydia, and she too is the survivor of a great love, though hers was betrayed rather than fulfilled. Both know that a price must be paid for self-knowledge and growth. We follow with moved attention as this seasoned, rueful pair tentatively forges a connection that might bring them together for the rest of their lives—until Lent pulls the rug out from under them in an abrupt conclusion that asserts the baleful role of chance in human destiny.
Readers will likely be angered by the arbitrary thwarting of two appealing characters, but the novel’s prose is so gorgeous, its insights so mature, that they may be willing to accept its dark finale.