Saturday, May 9, 2015

A Star for Mrs. Blake: a very short review

April Smith, perhaps somewhat known for her "Special Agent Ana Gray" series, has tried her hand in a completely different genre with the unusual A Star for Mrs. Blake.

Not quite a romance, not quite historical fiction, not really a memoir, only nibbling at the edges of a detective story, not exactly a war novel, A Star for Mrs. Blake is something just a little different.

Taking inspiration from a real event (the "Gold Star Mothers" of World War I), Smith imagines the travels of Mrs. Cora Blake as she goes on A Great Adventure from a remote Maine island all the way to the Argonne, in France, to find and visit the grave of her son, killed in action in World War I.

But time has passed, it's not World War I any more. In fact, it's 1931, and things are changing. Smith uses this to her advantage, building a story that is about how we deal with change, with loss, with sorrow, with events that are big and complex and often beyond our control.

Frankly, I almost gave up on this book, about a quarter of the way through.

At first, Smith is a bit over-eager, not quite sure what sort of book she wants to write. At times, she seems unable to trust her reader, and has a tendency to walk up to us and club us over the head:

When they reached the hotel, she and Griffin Reed said goodbye, shook hands, and wished each other well, both of them satisfied that an exchange had been made that was of lasting consequence. Later she would mark that moment, when they passed through the gold-kissed gates of the Luxembourg Gardens and she trusted him enough to tell her story, as the one that changed her life.

But after a while Smith seems to relax, and grow more confident, and as she does so, she rewards our patience, and her book becomes much more fun to read:

Griffin Reed stayed home, barefoot and in his pajamas. When he was writing he never needed to pass beyond the white walls of the garden. He barely saw anything around him; his mind chased a progression of ideas that kept evaporating whenever he got close. Occasionally a phrase would emerge like a neon sign out of the mist and he'd grab for it with pen and paper, miss it completely, then toss the note aside and veer away. Soon there was a trail of notes blowing across the propery, each one urgent and forgotten. He snapped at the maid not to pick anything up. He'd find himself on the floor, on the bed, staring out the window, walking down the steps to make a cup of tea, clipping leaves in the potting shed, dropping the clippers, back in the kitchen, looking at the mail. He lived in a muffled corner of his mind that was not illuminated by any kind of logic or salvation.

Were there actually neon signs in 1931? Wikipedia says yes, they became quite common by 1920. But it doesn't matter, we're having a good time now, wandering around the muffled corners of our mind, trying to follow this trail of notes.

Mrs. Blake goes to France; things happen; she meets people; she has adventures; characters develop; conversations occur. We follow along, enjoying ourselves, being part of the moment, taking this opportunity to remember what was, and what undoubtedly will be again.

Silence entered her ears and pressed against her brain. Did anybody laugh here? Did anyone rejoice at happy memories? Or did that not serve our country? She stood up, running her fingers along the stone, noting the smooth edgework. She knew something that she hadn't known before. She'd always imagined Sammy falling alone in suspended space like a stage backdrop, but now she saw a marble forest of young men who were dead, and knew that Sammy was, had been, and always would be in their company. A spasm of grief almost doubled her up -- for her boy, for all the boys, and for the lives they never had. And then, a moment ago unbearable, it left her like the breeze.

I could wish Smith had fought a little harder, dug a little deeper, been more sure of her footing and more trusting of her readers, and maybe written a tighter book, a sharper book, a bolder book. I think she was nearly there; I think she had the elements of something truly great.

But I shouldn't pick, I shouldn't whine. Smith wrote the book she wanted to write, and she did a fine job. A Star for Mrs. Blake is a book I certainly didn't regret reading.

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