SWEET WATER by Kathryn Kramer


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Marital infidelity, religious mystery, and the ambiguities of both healing and guilt are intriguingly jumbled together in this ambitious third novel from Kramer (A Handbook for Visitors from Outer Space, 1984; Rattlesnake Farming, 1992). In summary, the plot sounds more than a little unwieldy. Its major characters, Ned Dene (a historian and biographer) and his Danish-born wife Greta (a horse breeder), have purchased Thrush Hollow, a former Vermont resort hotel—where their 21- year-marriage seems secure despite their temperamental differences and shared memory of a scandal involving Greta (who was, quite literally, stigmatized) and an offended bishop at the Catholic school where they had met as teenagers. Greta, furthermore, has never confessed to Ned that their son Henry was fathered by their late friend (and the love of her life), Lars Crain. Now, Ned’s discovery of letters written a century earlier, by Thrush Hollow’s then mistress Lucinda Dearborn, reveals a history of both illicit love and “Passion unrealized— that’s akin to, and far grander than, the Denes’ own spurious compatibility. And the sudden reappearance of people crucially involved in her several betrayals forces Greta to face the truth about her own confusion of loves, and understand that there are burdens she must shoulder alone. This is a very curious novel. Its use of water imagery (the art of dowsing, an inexplicable “cure” Lucinda Dearborn practices) is skillful and deeply suggestive. And the unfolding story of Lucinda and the famous novelist who tried, and failed, to return her love—which is obviously based on the relationship between Henry James and the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson—intermittently possesses the haunting immediacy of folk ballad. Too many things are going here, and they don’t all hang together, but Kramer’s best passages persuasively display her gift for meditative lyricism and energetic imagination.

Pub Date: Aug. 19th, 1998
ISBN: 0-375-40083-4
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1998