If you’ve retreated into the 19th century and have spent the summer curled up on the porch with Dickens, it’s a bit of a shock to return to the 21st century. When I came up for air, I decided to read some new writers.
But my impression after burying myself in The New Yorker’s fiction issue was that, with the exception of Rivka Galchen and Gary Shtenygart, these 20-under-40 are less expansive even than late-20th-century minimalists and not at all to my taste. Sentences have become shorter, adjectives are fewer, prose is so understated as to be cautious, and whimsicality can become precious.
So I checked out an over-40 writer, Carin Clevidence, when her novel arrived on my doorstop.
Clevidence is too mature for The New Yorker list, but her lyrical first novel, The House on Salt Hay Road, has caused a stir among women’s magazines, Marie Claire, Vogue, and More. This lovely historical novel is not, however, aimed only at women.
Set in a small town in Long Island, The House on Salt Hay Road begins in 1937 with the explosion of a fireworks factory, which is a dark precursor of the chaos wrought by the historic 1938 hurricane, described later in the book.
Life on the surface is even, but underneath uncontrollable disturbances occur in the Scudder household.
Orphaned twelve-year-old Clayton and 19-year-old Nancy Poole live in a marsh-smelling old house on Salt Hay Road with their grandfather, Scudder, and his two middle-aged children, Roy, a dilettante gentleman farmer, and his daughter, Mavis, a deserted wife whose gambler husband took off with all her money.
When the explosion hits, no one knows what has happened. Clayton rushes out of school to look for his 19-year-old sister, Nancy, who is out on horseback. And Nancy, stopping to check on her aunt Mavis at Washington Lodge, where she works as a cook, meets her future fiance, Robert, a curator at a natural history museum in Boston.
Nancy is a charmer who has won over all the men in the family, but dislikes Mavis.
In the following amusing scene, Nancy cuts her grandfather’s hair. And because I have been reading Our Mutual Friend, I was reminded of Bella’s constant fiddling with her father’s hair.
“Scudder was of two minds about the haircut. He sensed, in his granddaughter’s offer, an urge to make him more presentable, something. On the other hand, and although he claimed to feel like a prize pig at a county fair, he secretly enjoyed being fussed over by Nancy. It was rare that he had her full attention lately. At first he’d been relieved when her typewriter went quiet and she stopped talking about secretarial jobs in Patchoque. He hadn’t liked the idea of her in an office full of men, most of them undoubtedly married, though he hadn’t been able to tell her so….He suspected the haircut was her way of making amends.”
After Nancy gets married and moves to Boston, Scudder’s health rapidly deteriorates. Only when Nancy’s marriage turns rocky and she returns to look after Scudder does his health improve.
The hurricane strikes during Nancy’s visit. Clevidenc’s account, which takes up most of Part Three, is terrifying and lyrical.
My only complaint is that the characterization of Nancy is a bit undeveloped. I don’t get much sense of who she is, other than a spoiled, idle, but charming girl. I kept wondering why her aunt, uncle, and younger brother worked while she rode horses and taught herself to type. She is a major character in the book, and I needed to know more.
The other characters are more vivid. Clayton seems like a real, careless boy. And Mavis, a minor character who is something of a religious nut as a result of her sad marriage, fascinates with her rigid spinsterish routines and creative cookery. When her life changes, she finally gets her break.
This is a graceful debut, a novel I really enjoyed.