Laura Rider’s Masterpiece by Jane Hamilton

October 23, 2009

New Hamilton


  Laura Rider’s Masterpiece

  Jane Hamilton, 214 pages

  Grand Central Publishing

  ISBN 978-0-446-53895-4

  Click here to buy from amazon.com.

The story-line mirrors our interaction with it, “Laura wanted, in a dress that came to her ankles and in robin’s-egg-blue high healed leather Mary Janes, to be an author.“ We not only follow that journey, but as readers are her recipients. There are other characters who play active roles, for example her husband, Charlie Ryder, and the curious public radio personality, Jenna Faroli, Laura is both in awe of and wants to understand by conspiring with Charlie to win her affection. Somehow, she feels this will reveal the secret of what women want so critical to romance novels. It’s hard not to think of the central character as Jane Hamilton, who I believe lives on some kind of farm in Rochester, Wisconsin, nor to think of Jenna Faroli as WPR’s Jean Feraca. That is an injustice to both (and I apologize), but it does add an element of fun for local readers (as do the digs at the Wisconsin Dells’ “Bear Claw Lodge” and Oprah’s book club that Laura stops following when Oprah switches to dead authors, Hamilton had been featured twice before that decision).

The uniform-length paragraphs in the first five chapters—rather than confrontational dialogue scenes—create a sort of reverie that allows us to fashion the story beyond its details, though there is some breathtaking description, “Off they went along a path with black iris in bloom, a blossoming sage, yellow iris with orange centers, and a long row of peonies going from pink to red to dark red. He opened a wooden lattice gate, and they climbed mossy steps to a line of birch trees planted in parallel form.”

Here’s what I admire. Hamilton, like the rest of us Wisconsinites, is enthusiastic about every subject, form Italian recipes to the dynamics of a radio show. Nothing is background simply thrown in for credibility. She’s original in her plots and enjoys the real surprises they lead to. And there are surprises. The author gives her characters a chance to re-invent themselves (“She’d had the oddest sense that she was a girl again, that she was with a boy roaming the forest of a childhood she hadn’t ever had.). Let New York authors write about writers or those in LA about turning prose into movies, here is someone focusing on us (readers, listeners, would-be-writers) in our everyday worlds. Charlie says about Jenna, “He loved how she’d probably been speaking to the President that day, or Steven Spielberg, and how she’d given Charlie the same consideration as the big shots.” The fact that his falling in love with Jenna complicates Laura’s plans keeps us turning pages. But that’s the fun of this book. We await the Black Moment (when there seems to be no solution for the couple in love) and when it comes, how it will resolve.

In an interview with The Journal Times in Racine, Wis. in November 2006, Hamilton talked about her early inspiration for writing novels. As a student at Carleton College, she overheard a professor say she would write a novel one day. Hamilton had written only two short stories for the professor’s class. Overhearing the conversation gave her confidence. “It had a lot more potency, the fact that I overheard it, rather than his telling me directly,” she said. Laura has a similar experience at a writing workshop at Bear Claw Lodge.

But at one point Laura concludes that her romantic novel will be all about courtship and coming into self-knowledge, all foreplay, and not deal with the irksome “rest of life.” Unfortunately, this funny, dark and sexy book doesn’t heed that wisdom itself. In fact, the last chapters are disappointingly talky and pedantic. More like the vision of a masterpiece, rather than the masterpiece, either for Laura Ryder or Jane Hamilton.

   φ φ φ (three roses out of five)                –   John Lehman


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