In her pensive third novel, Mosby (The Season of Lillian Dawes, 2001, etc.) charts the emotional progress of an ill-at-ease New Yorker who finds bittersweet fulfillment as an American in Paris.
Lavinia Gibbs learns early to present “an impassive façade” as a shield against her aristocratic family’s cruelty. Not as pretty as her mother and sister, nor as brutally self-satisfied as her father and brothers, Lavinia recognizes in herself strong sexual feelings most unbecoming to a young lady making her debut in 1917. When her stuffy fiancé’s first kiss makes it obvious that he will not satisfy those feelings, she breaks off the engagement, though she’s now in her 30s and knows her parents will consider this unforgivable. She’s quietly content to be packed off with a modest income to Paris, where she may be lonely but can direct the course of her own life. The passion she’s yearned for arrives with Gaston Lesseur, a wealthy Frenchman who hires her to inventory his dead uncle’s estate. Lavinia enters the “perpetual twilight” her mother contemptuously describes as the lot of married men’s mistresses, but twilight is her favorite time of day: “transforming the world into a fleeting dream of beauty and blue shadows, full of unnamed possibility.” She and Gaston make love, quarrel and make up, virtually oblivious to the approach of WWII. Mosby’s story seems almost as hermetically sealed as her characters’ affluent lives, focused on minute details of Lavinia’s interactions with her lover, her French neighbors and a few American expatriates of her social class. Yet by the time the Nazis enter Paris, we see that Lavinia is finally ready to emerge from the cocoon of family connections and expectations that had continued to encase her in exile. “Even if she had been raised by wolves, she was not one of them,” she realizes as she heads toward an uncertain but oddly enticing future.
Very low-key, but patient readers will savor the finely wrought prose and unexpectedly moving portrait of a woman who loses her privileges and finds herself.