Gregory Blake Smith successfully plays on the mystique of déjà vu in The Maze at Windermere, by following five timelines across centuries in one place – Newport, Rhode Island. As each of the five stories unravels, from colonial shipping village to present day, Smith follows the politics and loves of a cast of characters with different yet similar prospects and problems, stepping through time in the same place. I confess I have a tendency to get lost, and this maze had me baffled and uncomfortably disconnected in its puzzling play of changing times and people, but eventually I made it to the center – and it was worth the trouble and confusion.
The five time lines could easily stand on their own, and probably would have been easier to follow in sequential order, but Smith keeps the reader off balance by jumping from one time frame to another. Thankfully his clear identification of the year as well as his adaptation of the language and idiosyncrasies of the time help clarify where the reader is, and who is in charge. Nevertheless, it takes a while to feel comfortable
The five time zones include colonial Prudence, a fifteen year old Quaker orphaned by the death of her mother and father in 1692, and left to care for her toddler sister with the help of her slave; Ballard in 1778 who pursues a Jewish merchant’s daughter, Judith, while investigating her father’s political leanings; the not yet famous Henry James who meets Alice in 1863 and makes a life decision about his future lifestyle and writing; Franklin, a closeted gay man in 1896, at a time when Oscar Wilde was imprisoned, courts a wealthy widow and hopes to marry as his cover; and finally, Sandy, a handsome tennis pro (ranked 46th) in 2011 who falls in love with the disabled heiress of Windermere, another Alice, after he has secretly slept with her sister-in-law and her best friend from college. Is he really in love or after her money?
Not until later in the novel, after the characters morph into substance, is it possible to navigate the maze of intersecting plots. Prudence is under pressure to marry an older man from the Friends Assembly but she yearns to make a life with her childhood friend closer to her own age. Her slave girl has a plan for her own freedom but must maneuver a contract between her black lover and Prudence to make it happen. In 2011, the heiress’s best friend, Aisha, a black artist, is planning her own maneuvers to banish Sandy and gain the estate for herself.
Franklin and Ballard seem to be selfish and sometimes despicable lotharios, with dubious intentions toward the women they pursue; at times, Sandy seems so too. Henry James, the observer of the human condition who eventually uses his experiences and notes to write a famous novel about the woman who awakens him, has something in common with Sandy too in his calculating approach.
Although Smith seems to point to lives forever repeating the historical loop, he also clearly digresses within each hero and heroine to demonstrate their differences in temperament and prejudices, and their reactions to the pressures of their times. The ending offers a reasonable solution to some, while others are left hanging – leaving it to the reader to decide how their lives will evolve.
A complicated novel with so many more nuances and plot twists than can be briefly noted here, The Maze at Windermere is a challenge to read, but, if you take on the game, be prepared to keep thinking about the consequences and alternatives after you finish.
I need to read this book again, now that I have a feel for the twists and interconnectedness in the puzzle.