Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Leeway Cottage by Beth Gutcheon

This was another example of my being fooled by a pretty cover and innocuous-sounding blurb copy. I am especially likely to fall for this when the author is someone I've read before, and enjoyed. And don't get me started on misleading movie ad copy. Remember all the ads for The English Patient, that touted it as such a romantic love story? They neglected to mention that scene where the Nazis CUT OFF WILLEM DAFOE'S FINGERS. What about that? Oh yes, thank you for bringing that up.

So goes this wonderful book, and it IS a wonderful book, but a gentle family saga it is NOT. Beth Gutcheon, whom I referred to in my last post as a queen of domestic fiction, has written a book with an embedded surprise; in the middle of what appears to be another book about family relationships, and a long marriage, is the story of the amazing rescue of the Danish Jews during World War II, a stirring account of bravery, action, and humanity at its best and its worst. It's clear that Gutcheon has done an enormous amount of research (her web site contains an exhaustive bibliography), and her account is historically rich and accurate, at least according to this Wikipedia article. I was especially interested in reading about the role that physicist Niels Bohr played in convincing the Swedish government to admit the Danish Jews; I've never seen anything about this anywhere else, but Gutcheon provides sources for it on her site.

The rest of the book is pretty good too, though some of the minor characters are a bit cardboardy, and others go through some unexplained personality changes. In brief, this is a century-spanning story of a rich family from Ohio who spend every summer at their vacation home (Leeway Cottage) in Maine. The daughter Sydney marries a Danish musician named Laurus; it is Laurus's family (and especially his sister Nina) around which the Danish portion of the novel centers. Nina works for the Danish resistance, and is eventually captured by the Germans and endures unimaginable hardship. Her story provides a counterweight to the mostly superficial lives of the American characters.

I wish I could say that this was Gutcheon's plan – that she purposely juxtaposed these two situations to make a point. I'm not sure whether this is the case, though it may be. Instead the book reads a bit like she just got bored with the other story about rich Americans, started researching this Danish angle, and got inspired to make it much more than she originally planned. The first third of the book (the family before WWII) is much better than the final third (post WWII), wherein the characters seem to turn into shadows of their formerly three-dimensional selves. There is a telling quote from her on her web site that backs up my theory: "Young novelists may write what they know, but at my age the pleasure lies in writing what you want an excuse to learn about."

Gutcheon has been publishing books since the early 1980s, and excels at describing the minutiae of family life and marriage in ways that seem both unique and universal. I especially enjoyed her books Domestic Pleasures and Saying Grace, though didn't particularly like her more recent offering The Five Fortunes, which seemed a little too much like it was written for the Oprah crowd.

(Book 51, 2006)

2 comments:

Susan Balée said...

Oh, Becky, I'm happy to have discovered this site. You and I seem to like many of the same kinds of books. I got "Leeway Cottage" in a box of books I was supposed to review for a fiction chronicle last year (I do about one a year for The Hudson Review); it looked okay, but I had about fifteen books that looked even better, so I gave LC to my mother. She *loved* it -- loved the embedded Holocaust story (she's always reading novels about WW II, which she lived through).

I see, too, that you list Kate Atkinson's Whitbread-winning novel among your favorites. I need to find that one -- I just read "Case Histories" and "One Good Turn" (reviewed the latter for The Phila. Inquirer a week ago and a link to it is doubtless still online) and I just love her combination of wit and intelligence.

Well, I shall definitely be back here -- great site! (And I laughed aloud when you referred to Dafoe getting his fingers cut off. What about Kristin Scott Thomas dying alone in a cave????)

Becky said...

Susan, welcome! I'm glad you like the site! I have Case Histories put aside for the moment when I absolutely need something that I will love (kind of like rainy day saving). I'll be sure to check out your review of One Good Turn. Please keep commenting -- I've got some people who comment all the time, and we've got a good conversation going! (I think by the time Kristin Scott Thomas died in that cave I had already emotionally checked out of that movie. What a waste.) Great to hear from you!

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