Of beach plums, ramps, and Ramada Inns: a quietly sensitive, eminently sensible consideration of the landscapes of our lives.
Lessard (The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family, 1996), a writer and editor for the New Yorker and Washington Monthly, respectively, is a collector of places—and, she writes, she is amazed by people who aren’t, as when she observes “how indifferent air passengers are to the view out the window.” Some views are perhaps a little cheerless, such as the industrial wastelands of Ohio or the battlefield at Gettysburg. Some are stunning, and all shape the people who live in them without being aggressively assertive about it, as with the New York village in which she finds “something modestly, collectively triumphant,” namely, a shared sense of belonging. Landscape, writes the author, incorporates layers of meaning that lie close to the “hidden springs of personhood,” joining families and histories to the world. No matter how difficult some of those landscapes may be, from broken urban neighborhoods to abandoned cemeteries, the meaning is there to be sought out. Lessard usually finds something to like, or at least to point out, about the places she brings up for consideration. One good example is Wall Street, where she logged time as a young worker in a financial world “in which women especially were relegated to a lower order”—no problem, really, inasmuch as she was busy absorbing the place and its glorious and messy chaos. The overall feel of the book, which blends poetic reverie with deeply learned geography and history, is friendly if just on the edge of being too much, of becoming encyclopedic. Still, you’ve got to like a narrative that includes a search for an elusive Staten Island landfill that ends in unlikely self-discovery: “You felt lonely just looking at it, as if you hadn’t spoken to another human being in months, years maybe.”
A pleasant hodgepodge of observations on many places, all of them made more interesting than they perhaps really are—and that’s quite a gift.