Many of you already know Faith Sullivan.
Her novel The Cape Ann was very popular when it was published in 1989. I’m afraid I didn’t read it, but it is on my radar now because it has been reissued as a Nook book. The Empress of One, a sequel, won the Milkweed National Fiction Award in 1996.
After devouring Faith Sullivan’s out-of-print 1985 novel, Mrs. Demming and the Mythical Beast, which I discovered at the library, I am eager to track down her other books. Mrs. Demming should be a cult classic if it’s not.
In this beautifully-written, partly realistic, partly fantastic novel, Sullivan tells the story of Larissa Demming, an artist in her late 40s whose marriage is pretty much kaput. Although friends think her husband, Bart, a professor, is adorable, he’s actually stiff and dull, shut up all summer in his study writing, unsupportive of Larissa’s art.
During a summer in Belle Riviere, Minnesota, the beautiful river town where they have a summer house, Larissa sketches, paints, joins an ecology campaign, and opposes her investment banker daughter’s wedding.
Much of the novel centers on the ecology campaign. When a corporation from Texas wants to raze the land and build condos on the riverbank, the town is divided: businessmen want it; the environmentally-minded do not. Among Larissa’s anti-development friends are Harry, a newspaper publisher who calls for a study of the impact on the environment, and Daisy, her best friend, a former art gallery owner who is the mother of a free spirit whom Larissa wishes her son had married. On the other side are Harry’s wife, Roberta, who tries to drive him out of business because of his anti-development articles, and Larissa’s husband Bart, who doesn’t take sides but doesn’t want to be involved and doesn’t want Larissa to be involved because of gossip about her and Harry. (Harry is in love with Larissa.)
The oddest facet of this save-the-river novel is Larissa’s meeting on a picnic in the woods with Pan, the satyr god. Whether the satyr is real or imaginary, he takes us deeper into her psyche, and helps her understand her difficult past, which is dominated by Jamie, an itinerant father who deserted her after years of closeness as soon as she went to college, and her own dull children who rebelled against her by choosing numbers-crunching professions and early marriage.
How does Pan fit in? He is a lover of women, and he becomes Larissa’s lover. He tells an amazing love story about how a young, spirited woman he loved smuggled him out of Greece to Minnesota in the 19th century, and then died young. The story inspires Larissa to research the history of the young woman’s family. She also researches the history of Belle Riviere, and paints scenes for a Historical Society exhibition. Then she illustrates a book Harry’s son, Bobby, is writing. And since Larissa plans to go to Greece by herself…
One of the things I like best about Sullivan’s novel is her creation of Minnesota as a world unto itself. It is not fey like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, though of course he’s very funny. Sullivan’s Minnesota is a place where sophisticated, well-educated people live in small pretty towns or the Twin Cities (Larissa’s base), are intense about nature, and, lo and behold! don’t long for New York. Her vivid descriptions of a state characterized by lakes, rivers, and a city with magnificent museums, parks, and shopping will make you see it. (And I have, and am delighted to revisit it.)
Here is Sullivan on the weather and the landscape.
It was June, mid-June, and after months of numbing winter, the landscape was still tender and emerging. In Minnesota there’s a tentativeness about early summer, as though a harsh word or sudden movement might cause it to change its mind and disappear.
Despite the clear, strong sunlight, a frill of coolness edged the day. When I beached on the opposite shore, I unloaded my basket on the sand where the sun shone unobstructed, rather than back under the trees on the mossy bank. I came to this side of the river to picnic because the trees didn’t grow as close to the water as they did in front of our cabin. Also, this side, the eastern bank, was protected by law from development, so there were no cabins and one could hope to picnic or read without distraction.
The short scenes in Greece later in the novel are a little weak, but overall this is an excellent novel, and Larissa is a charming narrator. It is really one of the most charming books I’ve read this year. I’m adding it to my “If I Were Oprah (and Thank God I’m Not” Book Club list.