A trio of conceptually overlapping narratives spans Anglo-American relations and matters of head and heart across the 20th century.
In her fiction debut, critic and magazine editor Lesser (The Genius of Language, 2004, etc.) layers three stories, at the heart of each of which stands an expatriate American female visiting Cambridge, England. All of the women consider the cultural clash; each confronts an awkward relationship with a man; each has greater or lesser involvement with political shifts, women’s rights and, above all, literature. Book One offers the most complex and referential anecdote, depicting Charlotte and Roderick, potential alter egos for Edith Wharton and Henry James, during a house party sabotaged by drunken servants. A disruptive and histrionic Italian boyfriend and Charlotte’s lover, Gilbert, also arrive, the latter announcing the death of Queen Victoria; inevitably, “the end of an era.” A meta-fictional first-person narrator stirs this abstract pot by claiming to be Charlotte 25 years on, although, “She doesn’t represent me accurately…everything you see, everything on the outside, is made up, or at least transformed.” Charlotte’s confusion and embarrassment at the perceived exposure of her less-than-respectable relationship with Gilbert (the two are not married) is comparable to the shame experienced by Sarah, the divorced writer in Book Two, whose encounter in the 1950s with another woman’s flirtatious husband offers at first excitement and then the realization that he’s just not that into her. The graduate student in Book Three grapples more predictably with Paul, an emotionally immature and repressed Englishman of limited insight. Throughout, nationalistic stereotypes jostle, semi-ironically, with higher-flown debates on artistry, aging and the individual. The mix is uneasy, ambitious and—given its length and span—superficial. The symbol of the pagoda, however, pulls matters together in an elegant conclusion, linking intellectual confidantes in a vision of sublime achievement set amid the prosaic spaces of Kew Gardens.
A self-conscious but deft literary triptych; rarefied amusement.