A haunting tale of obsessive love and buried secrets that won’t stay buried, recounted by Labiner (Our Sometime Sister, 1998) in a hyperliterary tone that recalls the best of Borges or Cyril Connolly.
This is one of those stories in which much of the reader’s pleasure comes from watching the author have such a good time telling the tale. Our narrator is a highly introspective young American, Fern Jacobi, who has finished college and landed in Ireland at the end of an extended tour of Europe. Short on plans and cash alike, she accepts a job as housekeeper for Owen and Brigid Lieb, a literary couple who have just returned after 20 years’ absence to their home outside Galway. For the precociously intellectual Fern, the job is a stroke of luck, since Owen is a well-known writer who is also famous as the widowed husband of Franny Lieb. Franny (obviously modeled on Sylvia Plath) published only one book (a novel called The Bright Corner) during her lifetime, but she has had a cult following ever since her suicide in 1963. Owen’s second wife is now writing her first book, a biography of Marcel Proust (whom she claims was her grandfather), and she soon comes to rely on the younger but more self-assured Fern’s advice as she begins her literary career. Soon Fern becomes fascinated by the figure of the dead Franny, and, when she discovers a cache of Franny’s unpublished letters, she begins to look more closely into the circumstances of her suicide (or was it murder?) and her unhappy marriage to the enigmatic and morbid Owen. She’ll be led to a number of rather stunning discoveries—about herself and the Liebs—that make her feel (literally) like a new woman.
A splendid, leisurely meditation on the meaning of fame, identity, and love that reaches real depths of thought and feeling without seeming forced or pompous.