In the waning days of Prohibition, a young woman derives life lessons from artifacts of the ancient world.
In Tessaro’s (The Perfume Collector, 2014, etc.) latest novel, Maeve, whose childhood was overshadowed by her father’s early death, escapes her North Boston neighborhood for New York City. But soon she’s back, defeated by stints as a taxi dancer and, after a hooch-fueled suicide attempt, asylum inmate. Living with her embittered mother and looking for work at the worst possible time—in the middle of the Great Depression—Maeve dyes her red hair blonde to avoid anti-Irish prejudice and stumbles onto a job in an antiques shop, Winshaw and Kessler Antiquities. Co-owner Mr. Winshaw appears to be permanently absent, off on archaeological digs, occasionally sending back treasures such as a Harrow Painter Greek vase, circa 480-470 B.C.E., which is acquired by the mysterious Van der Laar family. Maeve, who now goes by May, is sent by Mr. Kessler to complete the sale at the Van der Laars’ seaside mansion, where the daughter of the house, Diana, recognizes her—they were co-residents of the asylum, although Diana was in the affluent wing. May and Diana form a friendship that is complicated by several factors, not least Diana's playboy brother James’ interest in May and the fact that Diana’s wealth and connections expose May to unlimited alcohol. Although purporting to be Diana’s protector and May’s potential rescuer, James is mostly absent pursuing the family’s obscure and possibly criminal dealings in South Africa’s diamond trade. After May turns up drunk at Diana’s in-town pied-à-terre, her friend conducts the 1930s equivalent of an intervention. Now May confines her drinking to trysts with James. Another subplot involving May’s Italian neighbors highlights the stark contrast between May’s rootlessness and the allure of conventional domestic life. However, too often the quandaries and inner turmoil May experiences are described rather than shown.
This novel meanders more than the Odyssey to which it frequently pays homage.