The Maze at Windermere

61mZtWszWnL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_   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.

 

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The Lowland

232480744In The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri contrasts the lives of brothers, Subhash and Udayan, as their stories slowly emerge in the backdrop of a changing world.  Although the narrative begins with protracted attention to the brothers’ childhood in India, soon after its independence in 1947, their roots and surroundings provide a necessary grounding for the story of familial loyalty and cultural ties that follows.  If you patiently wade through the excruciating details, you will be caught in another time and place, and Lahiri once again will hypnotize you with her storytelling.

Having grown up in Rhode Island, Lahiri taps into her knowledge of that area when older brother, the quiet and cautious Subhash, leaves Calcutta for his doctoral studies in the United States, but her research into younger brother Udayan’s involvement in the beginnings of the Naxalites reveals her detailed attention to a movement that is still active in India today.  As one brother leaves family and country behind to adopt a new life, the other, more reckless and bold,  defies his parents to become a rebel.  Lahiri carefully notes that the movement in India has little press in the United States and the action only provides a backdrop for the incidents that affect the brothers’ lives, but through her descriptions, she effectively reveals an India that many would not have known.

Udayan becomes a follower of the Maoist Naxalite movement, which fought for the violent overthrow of the Indian government beginning in the 1960s.   After Udayan is arrested and killed by the police, Subhash returns home. He marries his brother’s young widow and takes her back to the United States, where he raises the child she was carrying as his own.

Lahiri’s genius may be to connect those universal feelings – family rivalry, loyalty, and love – to extraordinary circumstances and unfamiliar surroundings.  Subhash struggles with loneliness in a new country, missing his family but relieved to be disconnected from their expectations and demands.  Udayan forsakes a future as the beloved son, rebelling against those same expectations and demands.  When he marries Gauri, without his parents’ permission, he tries to accommodate both worlds by living in his parents’ house with his new wife, while secretly conspiring with the underground.  When he is caught and executed, brother Subhash returns to India, not knowing how his well-meaning rescue of Udayan’s wife will affect their lives.

The story flips back and forth from life in Rhode Island to memories of India, and through three generations that eventually find peace and acceptance.  But, the journey of the three principals – Subhash, Udayan, and Gauri – and their complicated moral choices – creates a unique perspective not only on how much the world has changed in the last fifty years, but also how inner struggles and successes continue to make life go on.