photo: Vicki Weisfeld
By Margaret Bradham Thornton – There’s something about a man who’s “too perfect.” The feeling that something will go wrong hangs over your head as you turn the pages, waiting . . .
In this debut novel, Eliza Poinsett is the daughter of an old Charleston family. (Supposedly, she’s a descendant of diplomat Joel Roberts Poinsett, a Charlestonian who introduced the flower that became the ubiquitous Christmas plant.) Educated at Princeton and Columbia, Eliza decamped to England after the love of her life, Henry Heyward, told her he was marrying someone else. His wife-to-be Issie was pregnant, and the marriage lasted not much longer than it took for her to produce young Lawton. Henry sued for custody and got it, and Issie departed for less socially correct climes.
At the start of the book, Eliza has established herself in England with a job, a pending fellowship, and Jamie, her proper English boyfriend. Then she runs into Henry at a wedding. He’s available, Jamie doesn’t really move her, and she’s on the verge of her first return trip to Charleston in years, to attend her step-sister’s coming out party.
She waffles about going, but of course she does, straight into the snares Henry quite cheerfully admits he’s setting for her. At one point, she tells now nine-year-old Lawton that she prefers tennis to sailing, because “I could never figure out which way the wind was blowing.” Ah, but the reader can.
Nevertheless, Eliza dithers half-heartedly, weighing the pain of missed opportunities in England against the hope of second chances. Since the book is written from Eliza’s point of view, it would have been helpful to explore more deeply what underlies her ambivalence.
The author does a wonderful job of evoking Charleston—its geography, weather, history, architecture, and most of all, culture. That part of the book I enjoyed a lot. In other areas, the text signals “research!” or some obvious error plants a seed of doubt about the whole enterprise. For example, she refers to a pastel portrait as a “painting” or to a watercolor “canvas.” Those are slip-ups a good editor should have helped her avoid and they would have mattered less if Eliza weren’t an art historian, supposedly up on such basics.
For my taste, the book is too much of a soap opera romance, moving at a soap opera pace, with only its admirable atmospherics to sustain it. The ending, which I won’t reveal, shouldn’t burst out of the blue as it does; it needed some careful foreshadowing. Again, an editor should have helped with that.
I was puzzled about the naming of the principal characters Henry H. and Eliza, since the parallel with the more famous duo stops with the names. The explanation is in an author interview with Adam Parker in The (Charleston) Post and Courier. Thornton said,
“When we restored our house, we found on the original paint layer of a door jamb the names and heights of the Heyward children who had lived in the house in the 1830s. I liked the idea of taking the name of one of the children for one of the main characters. In Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion,’ Henry Higgins brings Eliza Doolittle into the mannered world of aristocratic London. In ‘Charleston,’ Henry goes in the opposite direction and brings Eliza into the untamed world of Lowcountry swamps.”
OK, but without that explanation, and perhaps with it, it’s a confusing choice.
I wish there were perfect men like Henry in the world waiting to sweep us gals off our feet, but, meanwhile, we have the fascinating city of Charleston. As New York Times reviewer Meghan Daum says, in this book, “the real femme fatale is the city itself, a place where the breeze in the laurel oak sounds ‘like a slow kind of applause.’” The story takes place around 1991, and I wonder how much Charleston—whose ways and mores here seem set in amber—has changed in the interim.