I’m sorry to bring a review of a novel that comes out in January of next year, but I figured I should write something up while it was still fresh in my mind (and I enjoyed this novel so I thought you guys might want to know about it anyways~).
Title/Author/Pg: The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith, 352 pg
Date Published: January 9, 2018
Date Read: August 9, 2017
Genre: Fiction, Historical
In The Maze at Windermere, Smith weaves together five stories across four centuries, all of which revolve around a central location–Newport, Rhode Island. The stories are also tied together through themes of love, wealth, power, family and survival. We see how each of these themes guides each story, and dictate how the main characters live their lives.
First, we are introduced to Sandy, who is a retired pro tennis player coaching in Newport over the summer of 2011. Sandy begins as a rather self-centered, over-confident man who is carrying on multiple affairs within the same family. However, as his story moves along, he begins to evolve into a more realistic, caring and faceted individual. Through Sandy’s story, we see the ‘present-day’ Newport, the wealthy class that still populates its shores and mansions, and are introduced to the location that serves as a touchstone for the other four stories.
Next we have Franklin Drexel, who desires a better station in life, and attempts to blend in with the wealthier occupants of Newport during the summer of 1896. He follows along behind his wealthy benefactor, and with her plan to get him married off to the wealthy widower Mrs. Newcombe. However, we quickly learn that Mr. Drexel has an important reason for objection to this plan, and follow along as he tries to navigate his sticky situation to gain the wealth and power that he so desires.
In 1863, we meet Henry (Harry) James, a young man who is an aspiring writer, living in Newport with his family. As he observes the wealthy patrons of a nearby hotel, he begins a friendship with a young woman, Miss Taylor, who stands out from the rest of the society ladies. As their friendship progresses, and the Civil War continues, we witness Harry’s conflicted conscience and the woes of his family.
We gain a glimpse of an earlier war, in 1778, when we follow along with Major Ballard, who serves in the British Army during the Revolutionary War. He is stationed in Newport, where he commands a group of spies, but leads a relatively staid life himself. He distracts himself from his boring life with an intense obsession with a local Jewish girl. As his plot to seduce her unfolds, his mind begins to come undone, and create serious consequences for him.
Smith’s final story is of Prudence Selwyn, a young Quaker girl living in Newport in 1693. She is orphaned, and left to care for her baby sister with the help of their slave, Ashes. Prudence struggles to figure out how to survive, and make decisions that her father would be proud of, while paving her own road in her small community.
Each story revolves around well-developed and unique characters, who are used to explore the depths of human nature. Forbidden love, the desire for wealth and power, and the desire to live one’s own truth hold strong in each story, though some focus more on certain themes than others. Combined, the novel is one of decadence, scandal and survival, making it a thoughtful yet entertaining read.
I thought it was especially interesting to bring up sexuality within the context of historical fiction. I have not read many stories of non-heterosexual individuals in historical settings, and I found the multiple instances where sexuality was brought up very interesting and thought provoking. However, I found this element of diversity was overshadowed by the fact that all of the main characters were white, wealthy and privileged. While wealth does play a large role in the themes of this novel, I think there could have been at least one story where we see a character who is striving to attain wealth from a much lower economic level. There are also few characters of color, who had very small roles. I think the question of sexuality, and the conflict it creates could have been strengthened by the introduction of main characters of color and lower socioeconomic standing, especially in the more historical stories (earlier time period). In my opinion, this would have added more depth and substance to the story, and given the reader even more to think about.
I also found fault in the endings of each story. The only story that I thought had a solid ending was that of Prudence Selwyn, the orphaned Quaker girl. The other four stories, however, ended very abruptly. As I was reading, I noticed that I was nearing the end, yet I didn’t feel as if the stories were ready to end yet. Thus, there were elements in each story that remained unexplained, and left me feeling unfulfilled and slightly confused as I had finished each story.
Even so, I really enjoyed this novel and connected with each of the five characters and the worlds they lived in. The setting of each time period was described beautifully, and really made you feel like you were part of the story. The structure was also ambitious, but Smith pulled it off well. Even though each story stood well on its own, being read piecemeal together made each one more rich, and created thought-provoking connections between each.
While I think there are some elements that could be built upon and improved, I would still recommend this book, and I look forward to when it will be published in January! The cover is also absolutely gorgeous, so that is an added plus.
Thank you to Viking and Edelweiss for providing me with an advanced copy of this novel!