On her Web site (www.megwaiteclayton.com), Meg Waite Clayton lists her favorite books, which include classics like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, MIDDLEMARCH and THE GREAT GATSBY, and modern literary fiction like CHARMING BILLY, BEL CANTO and EMPIRE FALLS --- and after reading Clayton's debut novel THE LANGUAGE OF LIGHT, her reading list makes great sense. Like her preferred authors and novels, Clayton has an old-fashioned sense of narrative and symbolism that will delight readers searching for a story with meaning, character and drama.
Recently widowed Nelly Grace and her sons (I feel bound to explain that Grace is her surname, given how many Southern people I know with names like "Mary Walter" and "Anna Kate") move to a Maryland horse country farm so that she can reconnect with her family and regenerate her career ambitions. Daughter of a celebrated and distant photojournalist father, Nelly has cherished dreams of becoming a photographer, but has long believed that her father thinks she has no talent.
As she grapples with setting up a new household, Emma --- doyenne of the regional horse set -- comes into her life, seemingly by divine appointment. She disarms Nelly with her candor, admitting that she, too, once felt like an outsider when she arrived from England as a young war bride. Emma's personal eccentricities (wearing grosgrain-trimmed trilby hats to church, putting up "Emma's Peach" jam) seem to Nelly to be one way of coping with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. She and Emma become fast friends, and Emma's son Dac soon becomes Emma's friend as well.
"Dac," named with his initials, is a Vietnam vet with a complicated past involving someone --- Nelly is not sure who --- named Mai. She starts to do a little sleuthing at the same time she begins doing a little photography, and makes some progress both in her relationship with Dac and in her work before her father's unexpected return throws many lives into a tizzy.
Up to this point I was able to view the book as a plain, old-fashioned story, but things started to get in my way. For example, when exactly does the story take place? If Dac is a Vietnam vet and the story is set in the present-day, then he's a bit long in the tooth for the romance he and Nelly have (they relate as if they're of similar age); he'd have to be at least 50. If the story is set 10 or 20 years in the past, that's fine; but without knowing that, the reader is left calculating who would be how old, and when, especially since Nelly's father is supposed to have done World War II photojournalism.
And it's at this point that the plot became a bit heavy with significance: betrayal, deceit, death, corruption, rumors of incest --- I would have been perfectly happy with a much simpler tale wherein father and daughter grappled with their shared art and shared disappointments. When Clayton's focus remains on these themes, her images are compelling. At times I was reminded of Lily Briscoe's "Can't paint, can't write" creative angst in Virginia Woolf's great TO THE LIGHTHOUSE.
Given some comments Clayton makes in her acknowledgements about how long this book took to finish, I wondered if she had faced her own version of that classic woman's dilemma: how to be an artist while also being a wife and mother. I look forward to Clayton's future fictional grapplings with that problem.
Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on November 1, 2003
The Language of Light