Across the Page: Books for the New Year

Beatrice’s childhood friend, Faye, is not necessarily much better for her. Their relationship is described as "torturous," and their intimate past is vague. Although Faye is in love with Beatrice, it is not clear whether the feelings have ever been returned. But Ned is certainly suspicious when he notices how quickly Beatrice becomes aroused after she returns from brunch with Faye.

While Ned is slowly gaining recognition for his art and actress Faye has landed a role as a seductress on As the World Turns, Beatrice is falling apart. She drinks too much. She has completed all of her classes but has not officially graduated from college because of an unfinished senior thesis titled, "Either/Or: Søren Kierkegaard/Simone Weil." She thinks about the two philosophers constantly, but is unable to organize her thoughts. She dreams of becoming a writer but doesn’t write.

Throughout her life Beatrice has relied on other people to make her feel whole. But she begins to see that there is little security in all of this "love," with everyone projecting onto her who they think she is or need her to be. Before is less about Beatrice’s journey toward this understanding and more about what she does once she arrives.

At times Spanidou’s prose reads like Hemingway in its sparseness: "The waiter brought their drinks, and they drank in silence." At others it is almost Whitmanesque, encompassing love, self, war, art and the city: "It was inside her like a hollow reed, which pain made desperately sing, I—I—I. …”

Before is the first novel in seven years for Spanidou, author of God’s Snake and Fear, and it was well worth the wait.

The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys (Norton)

"Grief moves us like love,” believes Gwen Davis, narrator of Helen Humphreys’ lyrical novel The Lost Garden. "Grief is love, I suppose. Love as a backwards glance.”

In The Lost Garden, Gwen is glancing backward at the first few months she spent volunteering for the Women’s Land Army at a requisitioned estate in Devon during World War II. She has escaped the blitz in London: "Every day the landscape is radically altered. Houses become holes. Solids become spaces. Anything can disappear overnight. How can love survive this fact?”

One of the many things that preoccupies her is the discovery of a lost garden on the estate. She learns from the dedication that the garden is organized like a relationship, in three parts: longing, loss and faith .

Gwen is not only obsessed with the garden but also with the recent report that Virginia Woolf has gone missing. She believes she saw Woolf walking in London years before and is now haunted by that memory, by her regret that she did not approach the author.

To soothe her regret, Gwen writes letters to Woolf — letters filled with admiration for To The Lighthouse, as well as with her thoughts on the brutality of war. Through much of the novel Gwen lives inside her head, preferring to spend time alone, cultivating and restoring the secret garden or composing unsent letters to Woolf.

Ultimately she would do just about anything to avoid having to connect with another human being, something she feels incapable of doing. On the estate, however, far from the drone of warplanes, Gwen finally finds the time, and the quiet, to reflect on her loneliness.

A significant part of Gwen’s reflection comes from meeting Jane, a fellow volunteer whose fiancé is a pilot missing in action. Jane manages to see past Gwen’s tough, misanthropic exterior — an exterior built, in part, by maternal rejection.

And then there’s Raley, commanding officer of the Canadian regiment stationed at the estate. Like Jane, Raley reaches out to Gwen, and the two form a powerful bond that forces them both out of isolation.

Both relationships involve risk and reward, love returned and love unrequited. But in the end, after a lifetime of withdrawal, Gwen finally learns what it means to engage. The Lost Garden is a beautiful meditation on love — what it means to live with it and without it.

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