“I remember turning-the sunlight so much flatter, in that direction, pixels from staring at the water still dancing in front of my eyes.”
Nina de Gramont’s novel The Last September is described as a murder mystery, and while a murder occurs soon after the book opens, this is essentially the story of how love corrodes into a troubled marriage. The story is narrated by Brett, who when the novel opens, is struggling to finish her PhD thesis (after 8 years) on Emily Dickinson. Brett, her husband, Charlie and their 15 month old daughter are staying in Charlie’s father’s rundown beach house in Cape Cod Bay. This could be a romantic setting, but romance isn’t part of the equation. Simmering resentments linger under the surface of the marriage as Brett struggles to write while Charlie abandons his share of child care seemingly oblivious to Brett’s need to work. This unsettling tableaux unfolds into a picture of a marriage that is falling apart at the seams.
I’m not giving anything away to say that Charlie is brutally murdered, and that Brett assumes the killer is Charlie’s schizophrenic brother Eli who has a history of violence when he goes off his meds. As Brett struggles with guilt and might-have-beens in the aftermath of the murder, slowly, the story of Brett and Charlie’s marriage unfolds.
At university, Brett was best friends with pre-med student Eli, and through Eli, she met Charlie, the much more charming, live-lightly brother. A one-night stand later finds Brett wondering how she could have misinterpreted Charlie’s intentions, but she picks up the pieces of her shattered ego and carries on with her studies. Meanwhile Eli descends into schizophrenia, and eventually his illness brings Brett back into Charlie’s orbit.
The eventual solution to the murder comes as an understated event–far from the usual settings of police interviews and line-ups. Instead the story is solidly on the tragedy of Brett’s marriage and the many mistakes made along the way. The story is beautifully written, and yet I’ll admit no small frustration with Brett–a woman who seems to be moved along more than once by those with much stronger characters. Like many other women before her, Brett has multiple warnings that Charlie is an irresponsible womanizer, and yet she can’t resist that excessive charm and attention. Once again, the very traits that attract become the nails in the coffin of a dying marriage.
Woven into Brett’s tale is her love of Emily Dickinson, and while these passages seemed occasionally over applied to the love story of Brett and Charlie, the Dickinson thread also underscored the overall problem of having a romantic nature to begin with. Brett had ample warning about Charlie but nonetheless plunged ahead into marriage with a man who’d already shown his true nature.
Ultimately this is a story of regret & loss: Brett’s lost relationship with Eli, Eli’s loss of mental stability, Brett’s lost marriage to Charlie. Here’s Brett reacting to Eli’s absence and building a future that never happened for Eli:
For a while I tried to e-mail Eli, to update him on Tab [the cat] and find out if he was ever coming back to school. But he never answered. After a month or so went by, I helped his roommates pack up his things to ship back to his parents’ winter house in New York.
“He’s in some swanky hospital outside Boston,” one of the roommates told me. “It’s called Maclean.”
I knew about Maclean from studying poets and listening to James Taylor. In my mind, it was like a boarding school with rolling green lawns and maybe a swimming pool and tennis courts. I imagined Eli lying on a grassy hillside under a broad, blue sky, writing poetry in a spiral notebook. That image comforted me, even as the years unfolded without ever hearing from him. Eli went away. He had treatment. He was cured. Maybe when he got out he enrolled in a different college, went on to med school, got married.
Life is seen as a series of damaging incidents, and yet at the same time, Charlie, who’s gone not long after the novel begins, is one of those people who’s made of different, impervious material. Sailing through life with few cares, Charlie never realises how much he hurts people simply because he never sustains damage. The two brothers present an interesting contrast. While Eli is definitely mentally ill and is expected to cause problems , Charlie is deemed “normal” by societal standards, and yet Charlie damages those who love him. A highly readable novel, the emphasis here is on a troubled marriage and not the murder mystery.