The Last Storyteller
Medieval lovers, an old woman's descent into dementia, and the modern debate over embryonic stem cell research are just a few of the storylines woven together to create a compelling drama in Diane Noble's latest novel, THE LAST STORYTELLER.
The tale opens as a young couple goes their separate ways. Sam heads off to medical school in Boston while Taite retreats to her beloved grandmother's house near the northern California coast to figure out what to do about the pregnancy she decided not to reveal to Sam. Estranged from her own mother and fueled by her feelings of worthlessness, Taite does her best to push away the love Sam offers and resolves to abort their child.
"She had never mentioned this part to Sam: no children. Not now. Not ever. Family meant pain. And she was more or less certain her genetic makeup was predisposed to reject those she loved and to have them reject her. Much as she loved Sam, a fear gnawed deep inside that he, too, might abandon her someday."
Little does Taite know that Naini, her grandmother, will need her now more than ever. With Taran and Gwynedd, residents of the 12th century and the main characters in the family's legend, appearing as plain as day in the garden and Naini waking up from vivid dreams with cuts and bruises, it doesn't take long for her to realize and reveal to Taite that her mind is failing in old age. A medical diagnosis confirms it's only a matter of time before her memories and all sense of time will fade into full-blown Dementia with Lewy Bodies, or DLB.
But before she enters the unknown world of dementia, Naini is determined to steer Taite away from having an abortion. To try to convey to Taite the preciousness of the bond between parent and child, she begins to tell her the family legend once again. It's a story Taite has heard many times --- the tale of Taran and Gwynedd and the sack of Han-mere and Gwynedd's daring adventure to save her husband and neighbors --- but she never grows tired of it. And slowly the blessing offered to Taran and Gwynedd at their hasty wedding begins to work its way into her heart:
"Almighty God, our heavenly Father, fill these your children with faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, and godliness. Knit together in constant affection your son Taran of Han-mere and your daughter Gwynedd of Han-mere from this day forward. For their children, and their children's children, and for all who will follow through the ages, turn the hearts of parents to children, and the hearts of children to parents. So enkindle fervent charity among them all that they may evermore be filled with love one to another as members of your family through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."
Still, Taite is stubborn and scared. She goes to the clinic to have an abortion and emerges with both devastating and revealing results.
Meanwhile, Sam is across the country preparing for a career as a doctor specializing in stem cell research and thinking about Taite in every spare moment. He has no idea of the issues she's dealing with, but he misses her and wants to restore the relationship. And once again, Naini is working behind the scenes. She writes a dear friend, Luke, who lectures on ethics at the medical school and asks him to keep an eye open for Sam, to encourage him and guide him as much as possible. She believes Sam and Taite are meant for each other and she's eager that Sam reconsider the ethical implications of his chosen field of study.
When Sam turns up in Luke's class, it's only a matter of time before the pair is sparring over the ethical issues involving stem cell research and abortion. But as events unfold, the discussion becomes less theoretical and more personal.
Family relationships are complicated; that's a gross understatement. But thankfully, stories like THE LAST STORYTELLER help flesh out those complications in ways that people can relate to and, hopefully, learn from. The trick with THE LAST STORYTELLER, and other books like it that can be put in the romance novel family, is to get past the dialogue. People just don't talk this way --- to themselves or to others. And, for as messy as families can be, the plot here is pretty clean. Events line up just so. People do what we want them to do; everyone is happy in the end.
Nevertheless, the story of Taite and Sam is a good story. Much in the way she spins the tale of Taran and Gwynedd, you might imagine Naini, or one of her successors, sitting by the fire telling future generations about these two young people who made mistakes and found the courage to allow grace to cover their lives. Unrealistic dialogue or not, that's a story everyone can enjoy and, hopefully, learn from.
Reviewed by Lisa Ann Cockrel on September 21, 2004