Clair de Lune, by Jetta Carleton
I received this book for free from the publisher. All content and opinions are my own.
Jetta Carleton is the author of a little-known but well-loved novel called The Moonflower Vine. It was, so far as anyone knew, her only book. After her death, her family looked for the manuscript she had been working on but assumed it was lost in a tornado. However, the manuscript was bequeathed to an old friend and has since fallen into the hands of Harper Perennial. And thus we have Clair de Lune.
Allen Liles has her bachelor’s degree, and her master’s degree is forthcoming. Miraculously, she has found a job teaching at a community college – in the order of her maternal family full of teachers. It’s 1941 and gusts of war have been edging closer to the United States but they have not yet reached the shore. At first, she is all work and no play and dedicates her whole being to teaching. Then she discovers Toby and George, two kindred spirits in the form of two men/boy students. The threesome establish a kind of idyllic literary “salon” discussing poetry and philosophy and music, and Allen glides alone in her own little work, unaware of the potential consequences of her actions.
At the outset, there is a “frame” of a sort, where the author kind of steps in and narrates briefly at the beginning and the ending. Here’s some snippets from the beginning:
Allen Liles is a fictional character. I made her up. Her story is made up too. But not all of it. Part of it’s mine, handed on to her, altered to fit. (1)
If facts are required, the great houses would be scattered and fewer, not all together on one grand avenue. The park on the west would not be so spacious, the town not arranged in quite this way. But it is remembered this way. A street and a house from another town may have moved in, a different part slid southward to become this park. Memory fits everything into place. And memory is truth enough. (2-3)
I found the prose to be lyrical and perfect. It’s simple but descriptive, and the characterization of Allen was mesmerizing for me. This is essentially her story. The other characters all move in and out, but she is always there. And I was happy to spend time with her. Literary references abound – in a bring-you-in kind of way, not a leave-you-out kind of way. Here’s a couple of examples: “But the night, as Thoreau reminds us, is a very different season.” (47) “He closed the book, and they sat for a moment, thoughtfully hugging their knees, lost in the Joycean weather – mist, fog, rain, and evening.” (74)
There is a definite “feminist” vibe, in that, in 1941, Allen is a college graduate and is getting a master’s degree; she has a traditionally male name; she teaches at a college; and the story is not centered on romance. In fact, Allen attends a wedding and feels only this:
Did she know – Maxine, with her head full of dinner dances and pineapples on doilies – did she know what she was getting into? She had walked smiling down the aisle to be delivered into bondage, never to be her own woman again, but the property of another and, for all the honor and comfort, beholden to his laws. Did she know what she was doing? (264)
In the end, this is the story of not only Allen growing up, but decided her destiny. Could she in fact escape from a set of societal and familial rules and expectations to do what she really dreamed of doing? While I am one that tends to follow those darn rules, I was rooting for Allen the whole way.
Clair de Lune, by Jetta Carleton [rating:4]
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