Inside the sanctuary of the shuttered house, the idea of fall settled around her. Fall, months away–when the quality of light shifted from an incessant, blaring yellow to a muted, lustrous gold, when students returned and with them a kind of liveliness, an energizing optimism that floated in the cooler air, when life resumed, and with it came the possibility of love–fresh, unmarried faculty faces, divorcés, widowers. It was like this every fall; she took another deep gulping breath, inhaling hope. While most people she knew looked forward to spring, Catherine looked forward to fall, the drops in temperature, the change in the light and leaves.
Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, a debut novel from American author David Samuel Levinson. caught my attention. It’s a terrible title, and a horrible cover (I’m referring to the scribbled-in wine glass), but I wanted to read the book for its intriguing premise: this is the story of a young widow, stranded in a drab upstate New York town following the death of her husband, a once promising young author, who is forced to confront the person who destroyed her husband’s career. The novel is not without its problems (more of that later), but essentially the book examines the power–often tyrannical and misused–of literary critics who act as the gatekeepers of approval. Also under scrutiny is the issue of author ethics, and how books based on ‘true stories’ test the author, the audience and the subjects whose lives are ruined. For a new, young author this is an ambitious novel that includes complex, fascinating, and ambitious subjects.
Catherine Strayed, once a promising PhD candidate, now 39 years old, works in a small, yet bustling bookshop in the town of Winslow. Her husband Wyatt, was an assistant professor of creative writing at Winslow College. He wrote one novel, The Last Cigarette, which was viciously eviscerated by powerful literary critic Henry Swallow, the man “most able to launch or cripple a literary career.” The book sank without receiving the readership it deserved, and Wyatt never recovered from the incident. Withdrawn and depressed, he was writing another novel at the time of his death which may have been an accident but could also have been suicide. Catherine, a widow now for 18 months, carries on, barely making ends meet in a house that is in dire need of repairs.
Things begin to change for Catherine with the arrival of Antonia Lively, a young woman whose first novel is about to be published into a literary world that is ready to herald her book as a work of genius. Of course, it doesn’t hurt Antonia’s career that she’s sleeping with 59-year-old Henry Swallow, her one-time professor–the lothario who also mentored Catherine. Henry knows all the right people, and he can open all the right doors.
he’d been awarded the Pulitzer Prize at thirty, [that] he was the one man in the world most able to launch or cripple a literary career, [that] he’d once written a novel that had never gotten published
But lest we be too cynical about this relationship between influential mentor Henry and his very young student, Antonia is genuinely infatuated with Henry and thinks the relationship is permanent. For Henry, Antonia is just the latest talented young woman in a long line of interchangeable, worshipful students. No wonder Henry has been kicked out of a number of much more prestigious colleges and now finds himself as the director of the writing programme at the relatively backwoods institution, Winslow College.
After years of teaching at Columbia, he had resigned his position before the university could bring him up on charges of sexual misconduct–just as NYC had done years earlier. Perhaps love was more important than teaching, he reasoned, and he left quietly and without a hint of fuss or regret.
Trouble begins for Catherine when Antonia comes knocking at the door looking for a place to rent for the summer. While Antonia ends up renting a place near by, Henry Swallow, whose house is undergoing extensive repairs due to a mysterious fire, rents the small writer’s cottage owned by Catherine. The cottage, remodeled for Wyatt, is a painful reminder of all he didn’t achieve and also, due to the “tens of thousands” poured into it, it’s an almost-embarrassing white elephant symbolic of Wyatt’s interrupted career. Desperate for cash, Catherine can’t afford to refuse Henry’s overly-generous rent. But within hours, she realizes she’s made a horrible mistake–trouble has a way of following Henry, and he’s also a painful reminder of Catherine’s past:
Memories both dead and alive swirled inside her, as if she were a snow globe, her thoughts the bits of confetti.
While Antonia settles into Winslow for the summer, she’s pursued by relatives who aren’t happy about the novel she’s written, and Catherine, who’s alternately drawn and repelled by Henry finds herself increasingly drawn into Antonia and Henry’s relationship. What’s the story there between Henry and Catherine? After all why is she even talking to the man “who damned her husband into obscurity” ? And what motivates Antonia’s friendly overtures to Catherine?
Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence seems to be two different novels: on one hand there’s a novel that deals with complex, ethical issues of mixing fact and fiction, and the sometimes blurry line between the two. Henry has very strong opinions about writers “who ravaged their own lives and the lives of others,” whereas Antonia believes that “there is no right or wrong when you’re writing fiction. There is no truth. It’s all lies.” If the author uses a true story for the basis of a book, is there an ethical obligation to acknowledge that and stick to the truth (whatever that may be) or is it ‘safer’ to stick to fiction and then use the scope of imagination to manipulate a better story? With powerful zingers dropped into the plot, we see the highbrow world of literary criticism and academia tainted by jealousy and cold revenge while issues of authorial ethics linger tantalizingly in the background, but the questions raised regarding the power of critics (who may be biased) and whether or not writers of fiction have ethical responsibilities are never fully addressed.
But there’s another novel embedded here too, and that novel includes some much more dramatic incidents–shootings, a cryptic message painted in red, and then a narrator who prefaces the story of events, disappears into the narrative, and then re-emerges at the end in a very uncomfortable unmasking. Cut away all this high drama, and you’re left with a much more thoughtful, much better book, but as it stands, the more intellectual novel here is obfuscated by sensational acts of drama which seem to be committed not by logic as much as to fit the plot. I don’t want to be Henry Swallow–and I believe that such people with their own bitter, disappointed agendas exist–but there’s a better novel here fighting its way out.