Books

'The Maze at Windermere's Five Interweaving Stories of Love Fighting Social Boundaries

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.

Gregory Blake Smith
The Maze at Windermere

Viking

Jan 2018

Other

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.

6
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".

Games

On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

If we must #quarantine, at least give us some post-punk. This week we are revisiting the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Throbbing Gristle, and more.

Music

Alison Chesley Toils in Human and Musical Connectivity on Helen Money's 'Atomic'

Chicago-based cellist, Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) creates an utterly riveting listen from beginning to end on Atomic.

Music

That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.

Books

Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.

Reviews

Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.

Music

Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.

Film

'Thor: Ragnorak' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.

Music

Alps 2 and Harry No Release Eclectic Single "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" (premiere)

Alps 2 and Harry NoSong's "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" is a dizzying mix of mangled 2-step rhythms and woozy tranquil electronics.

Music

Kathleen Grace and Larry Goldings Team for Wonderfully Sparse "Where Or When" (premiere)

Kathleen Grace and Larry Goldings' "Where Or When" is a wonderfully understated performance that walks the line between pop and jazz.

Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.