Friday, January 26, 2018

How I wound up reading Gregory Blake Smith's "The Maze at Windermere" and how that led to two more booksellers reading it as well.

Pity the Daniel-targeted novel that came out on January 9. That was the day Chloe Benjamin's The Immortalists (signed copies available) was released and being that I had been thinking about that book since March 2017. But even though I read that book twice  So when my friend, the agent Barney Karpfinger, mentioned to me an upcoming novel that he was crazy about, The Maze at Windermere, I thought about it, put it on the pile, and realized it was a very large pile indeed. Mr. Karpfinger and I had been chatting a bit more of late, being that he represents Dan Egan, whose book The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, has been hugely popular in Milwaukee over the last year. We even helped locate a bookseller in another city for an offsite.

So I looked at the book and saw this enthusiastic recommendation from the novelist Jane Hamilton, and we've been in touch of late because firstly, we love selling her most recent novel, The Excellent Lombards, and secondly, Ms. Hamilton has helped a few writers over the years by being in conversation with them, most recently Sheryl Sandberg, when she was at the Riverside Theater for Option B. It turns out that every author is at their best when talking to Hamilton and I've kept my eye out for possibilities, being well aware that there are many reasons why one can strike out at this game, which is why we still haven't hosted an event with Tom Perrotta. Wouldn't Tom Perrotta and Jane Hamilton been amazing together in conversation? Maybe someday.

So here's the thing about The Maze at Windermere. It's quite a fascinating setup. The entire novel takes place in Newport, Rhode Island, but in five time periods, stretching from 2011 all the way back to 1692. I've read stories with two intertwined stories, and event three (Dan Chaon's Among the Missing comes to mind, as well as the memoir Falling Through the Earth, from Danielle Trussoni), but I don't think I have ever read a book with five interwoven subplots with five completely sets of characters at five time periods. Five perspectives, sure!

So it was a good thing that I started reading the book in the fall and put it down, after plans for the event were temporarily on hold. Because at that point, I was having a little trouble. The best thing to happen to me was to reread the first 50 pages. Much as rereading the first section of Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red was the jump start I needed, by the time I was at 84, I started understanding the cycle of stories (2011, 1896, 1863, 1778, 1692) and got used to the stylized language of the earlier narratives.

Like My Name Is Red, I needed a little jumpstart too. So I read the advance reviews to give me a bit of lifeline. There are times when you don't want to know spoilers, and there are times when you do. So by the time the structure of the narrative shifted again, speeding up a bit, I understood the tics of each section such that I had no trouble, and in fact couldn't put the book down for the last 100 pages. The speeding up of the interwoven narrative reminded me of David Payne's Back to Wando Passo. Why I need to mention this is beyond me, as how is this going to make somebody pick up the book, but you know but it was a literary deja vu moment for me, like when a particularly good rollercoaster sparks a memory about another rollercoaster. I don't go on rollercoasters anymore, but if someone told me a ride was like Kennywood's Thunderbolt in Pittsburgh, which begins with a drop and doesn't have a lift hill until the middle, I might do it.

Now that I've read the book, I've been selectively targeting other folks to read it. Certainly the Ron Charles review in The Washington Post has helped. And of course the Henry James angle intrigued Jane, and I'm glad to say that Sharon is reading it too. Smith does a masterful job of having the stories connect to each other in unusual ways. One person's home later shows up as the poor Irish neighborhood. Issues of race, class, and sexuality reverberate through the centuries. And of course the contemporary story features a character reading Daisy Miller, reflecting back to the mid-18th century story features Henry James meeting the woman who became his inspiration for Miller. I know you're always looking for a reason to read a classic, but you don't get around to it as much as you want. Maybe you should also be reading Daisy Miller?

And of course all the stories are tied together beyond place. Each time features a character (often several) negotiating the interactive nature of love and economics--the dance between the libido and the dollar.  And what The Maze at Windermere forces you to do is realize there's no other way to recommend the book than to say it as at once timely and timeless.


Jane Hamilton (who could make an accounting manual sound interesting, let alone a multi-layered novel like this) will be in conversation with Gregory Blake Smith about The Maze at Windermere, on Thursday, February 8, 7 pm. Jane Hamilton's most recent novel is The Excellent Lombards. Our event is cosponsored by the Carleton Milwaukee Club.

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