The glory days of the city of Newport, Rhode Island may be long gone, but that “most European of American cities” continues to beguile with its potent brew of privilege and frivolity, combined with a history that reaches back to early Colonial days, encompasses America’s strongest connection to a vanished world of pre-World War I European high society. In his novel The Maze at Windermere, Gregory Blake Smith weaves together the first person narratives of five different protagonists who walk the same Newport streets in the years 2011, 1896, 1863, 1778, and 1692, into a cohesive tale of love struggling against social boundaries.
In 2011, the protagonist is Sandy Alison, a handsome tennis player whose good but never great career is sputtering to an end when he meets enigmatic Alice du Pont. Heiress to Windermere, one of Newport’s best houses, Alice’s wealth is accompanied on the one hand by an exciting and unique vitality, but on the other by a body limited due to a mild case of cerebral palsy and marked by the scars of a suicide attempt. Sandy and Alice forge a real connection, yet its seriousness is widely doubted because Sandy blundered into Alice’s orbit by sleeping with first her sister-in-law (which Alice knows about) and then her best friend (which she doesn’t).
Windermere recurs in 1896 as the home of Ellen Newcombe, a widow being courted by the protagonist Franklin Drexel. A closeted gay man, he’s known in the society pages as a “gadabout” and a social “lapdog” to some of the richest women in the country, most notably the former Alma Vanderbilt. Drexel knows bachelors have a social shelf life and that he must marry to cement his social standing, not to mention for the money. He first views the project quite viciously, imagining it will be easier if he dislikes the woman he is to deceive. Franklin has reluctantly begun to admire Ellen when his project is thrown into chaos because word reaches Newport of the secret life he leads in Greenwich Village.
In 1863, Newport is seen through the eyes of the great novelist Henry James at age 20. Just beginning to find himself as a writer (Smith wisely doesn’t try too hard to replicate James’ famously complex style), James reflects on the war he’s sitting out while observing the town’s hotel guests as material for fiction, honing in on the lovely young Alice Taylor. They fascinate each other so much that she broaches marriage, yet as James struggles with his feelings he realizes that he is not destined to marry her, or indeed anyone.
During the revolution, a dastardly British officer plots to seduce the teen daughter of a local Jewish merchant. Well-born but possibly a psychopath, Major Ballard takes the novel’s social scheming to its extreme, going as far as murder to clear his way to his prize, for whom his feelings deepen into something potentially real.
The final protagonist is the innocent Prudy Selwyn, a teenage girl living in Newport in 1692 when it was a seagoing Quaker colony. When her father dies and she must provide for her young sister, the utterly guileless Prudy is given a rude awakening into love and commerce. She struggles with the moral contradictions of Quaker egalitarianism coexisting with slavery and rigid gender roles, chafing at her sudden reclassification from child to potential wife, and decides to take her marriage into her own hands.
The stories are cycled through from most recent to last until the last section, in which the voices have become so familiar and the correspondences so apparent that Smith no longer needs to identify the writer. The result is something like a more modest version of David Mitchell; without the dizzying eclecticism and range of ideas, yet more accessible for its geographic confinement and sustained focus on love. The different narrative threads don’t directly impinge on one another, but there are many thematic echoes that connect the stories. Henry James’ encounter with Alice has shades of Daisy Miller, which in 2011 Alice induces Sandy to read and becomes a source of badinage between them. The idea of fortune hunting is a preoccupation to the extreme wealthy of Newport, so it’s not a surprise to find it discussed in 1896 and 2011, but more surprising when seen in the Quaker context, as Prudy’s established household makes her an appealing target for ambitious men. While Franklin is quite open to himself about fortune hunting, Sandy constantly tells himself he’s above it, even as everyone suspects him of it and he viciously accuses another of it.
The overarching theme is of a tactical approach to love and romance; the protagonists must all negotiate social restrictions, in varying degrees of good faith, to achieve their goals. Yet Smith seems to view this strategizing somewhat critically, both by including the scheming of an outright criminal and by giving the best outcome to the least conniving character, Prudy. The novel’s first section is titled “Duplicity”, and every protagonist either deceives or is deceived; the most interesting cases are probably the protagonists who manage to fully deceive themselves.
There are some slight reasons for frustration; not all the stories are brought to a resolution and some plot developments can be seen too long in advance. Smith is adept at differentiating the prose by time period, but otherwise it doesn’t call attention to itself. But overall, much like a summer day at Newport, The Maze at Windermere is a pleasing treat. Smith evokes a fascinating port through the ages, through shifting values, wars, and fortunes, with the one constant of love clashing with the laws of society.