[16 September 2002]
“First love is only a little foolishness and a lot of curiosity”
—George Bernard Shaw
A lush novel, thick with the heady atmosphere of first love, lust and betrayal, Katherine Mosby’s sophomore effort, The Season of Lillian Dawes is part Catcher in the Rye, part The Great Gatsby. Original it ain’t, but the author’s fluid, lyrical prose makes it worth the deja vu.
Spencer and Gabriel Gibbs are new orphans and unlikely scions of a snooty family of old money snobs and other assorted elitist types. The brothers have always felt like square pegs trying to squirm their way into the round holes of their privileged upbringing, but with both their parents now dead, they are free to spurn the life they never wanted. Spencer rebels by making his meager living as a writer in a seedy closet of an apartment in 1950s New York City, while Gabriel’s shenanigans get him expelled from his posh boarding school and sent to live with his big brother.
Unsure how to motivate his new charge, Spencer - a handsome, brilliant chap the author clearly idolizes - busies himself with a book of short stories and encourages Gabriel to roam the streets of Manhattan searching for something to call his own. It is on one of these meandering wanderings that he gets his first glimpse of the mysterious Lillian Dawes, a woman whose appearance and attitude so capture his definition of perfection that he is soon scouring the pages of the society section for sightings of her and harassing relatives and acquaintances alike for snippets of information about her whereabouts. When Gabriel discovers that Lillian might make an appearance at a Fitzgerald-esque, Gatsby-type house party thrown by Spencer’s old college roommate, a noveau riche heir to an extermination fortune, he engineers an invitation for himself and his brother. It is there that Gabriel finally meets Lillian - and so does Spencer.
While it is a foregone conclusion that Lillian and Spencer will fall for each other - Mosby’s carefully constructed narrative makes it crystal-clear that Spencer and Lillian are the two most perfect people in Gabriel’s universe, rendering them unsuitable for anyone but each other - the novel’s real tension stems from Gabriel’s discovery that Lillian is not who she claims to be. She goes by several different names and refuses to speak of her past. Undaunted by her deceitfulness, Gabriel never stops believing that Lillian is perfection incarnate and is crushed when she overlooks him for his older, more debonair, more suitable brother.
A clunky subplot involving Spencer’s discovery that the Gibbs family fortune was built through embezzlement and his attempts at locating the rightful heir is disappointing and downright predictable, and Mosby’s revolving door of quirky characters, such as the boys’ flighty Aunt Lavinia, an unpredictable tsunami of a woman who has only recently returned to the states after having spent half her life shacked up with a man referred to simply as “the Jew,” are occasionally amusing, but ultimately unnecessary.
Gabriel’s teenage infatuation with the lovely Lillian Dawes, a resplendent enchantress with an enigmatic past is more than understandable - it’s real. An affluent high-schooler accustomed to a life of single sex dorms, tireless opulence and tedious predictability, Gabriel is ripe for an adventure and from the moment he meets her, Lillian promises to give him one. Though he never admits his feelings to her or to anyone else for that matter, the sting he feels when she opts for Spencer’s more mature overtures cuts into the narrator/reader’s collective heart like a rusty knife. First crushes are cruel enough without the added burden of a do-no-wrong sibling and a beguiling female running from an amorphous past. Mosby’s open adoration of Spencer makes it hard for her to pity Gabriel’s plight for long, a misstep that ultimately damages the tale and the reader’s willingness not to hate the elder Gibbs for his nonchalant flawlessness.
Neither Autumn nor Summer nor Winter nor Spring, The Season of Lillian Dawes is a nondescript time of year when the leaves change color and the snowflakes line driveways and the rain pours down on all. Mosby’s luxurious style of writing is fluid if at times pretentious, but Gabriel Gibbs’ first foray into the plush and undeniably adult world of first love smacks as genuine so we know that the pain will soon pass and the sun will shine again.