Nige recommends a lesser known novel by My Antonia author Willa Cather…
A Lost Lady by Willa Cather [available for a penny from Amazon] is an apparently slight novel of some 160 pages that achieves the kind of depth and makes the kind of impact you’d expect from something twice the length.
It’s the story of a beautiful and fascinating woman, married to a much older man – a retired railway pioneer – and living in a small town in Nebraska. She is first presented to us through the adoring eyes of a boy, Niel Herbert, who swiftly falls in love with her – and no wonder. Marian Forrester is deftly and vividly brought to life, with all her entrancing ways – but, as we soon discover, there are hidden depths to Mrs Forrester, there is much that we don’t know. She is as vulnerable as she is seductive, as weak as she is strong, as faithless as she is steadfast. A Lost Lady delivers shock after shock beneath its apparently tranquil surface, not all of them related to its heroine.
As well as being the portrait of a lady, the novel is also a picture of changing times, as the old ways of the pioneering days, based on honour and trust and mutuality, die away in the face of ruthless amoral commercialism (embodied in the book by the aptly named ‘Poison’ Ivy, a memorably vile young man). Marian Forrester seems to be herself a victim of this process after her husband dies, but this is a woman who never stays a victim for long. Young Niel, who observes her through increasingly disapproving eyes as his idealism turns to priggishness, never has the true measure of her…
Willa Cather manages the story with quiet but exquisite skill, never missing a word, a fragment of dialogue, a gesture or look that might illuminate the action and reveal character. We don’t, happily, see everything through Niel Herbert’s eyes; other viewpoints are deployed, including the author’s own.
All of this is put to the single overriding purpose of giving us Marian Forrester in the round and as if alive. It succeeds brilliantly, and movingly. It is – like the portrait of the heroine in My Antonia – written with that rare quality among novelists: love.
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