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Art, Drama, Music and Books
Art, drama, music & books

Fiction Book Review: 'Charleston,' by Margaret Bradham Thornton, Is an Exquisite Debut Novel PDF Print Email

Jul. 9, 2014:  Editor's note: Given the rich tradition of writers in Bronxville (Brendan Gill, Walter Isaacson, and John Huey, among others), MyhometownBronxville will from time to time highlight a book we think our readers will enjoy. 

Walter Isaacson, author most recently of Steve Jobs, called Charleston "a lyrical tale" that "explores the emotional terrain of love, loss, and memory." It may be your perfect summer read. 

Fiction Book Review:  Charleston, by Margaret Bradham Thornton

Writing evokes that which isn't there, and the best writing makes the absent so vividly present as to be more real than the thing itself. Good writing raises the dead. And it is hard to think of a recent novel that is more haunted and haunting, more brilliantly interested in the dynamic interplay between past and present, gone and here, than Charleston, the exquisite debut novel by the scholar Margaret Bradham Thornton. The book aches with longing for what is lost, while still brimming with hope for our power to reorder our lives, if only by engaging with our losses as courageously and compassionately as we can.

At the heart of the story is Eliza, an art historian in her late twenties--old enough to have a past, young enough to maybe do something about it. Eliza is haunted by the ghost of Henry, her first love, from her native Charleston. Their relationship went wrong in their early twenties when Henry committed an act of drunken infidelity. Eliza could not bear the betrayal and moved first to New York and then to London, where she excelled as a student and fell in love with Jamie, a well-bred, charming, and altogether kind man.

When Eliza returns to Charleston for her stepsister's debutante party, she reconnects with Henry and is forced to tackle a set of "equations" between them that "had remained unsolved." And now Eliza is deeply torn: between Henry and Jamie, Charleston and London, past and present selves, old home and new. Where does she truly belong?

Only by reckoning with her past can Eliza determine her present course. But when is it too late to go back? The more you run, the harder you make your life when you decide to turn around and face what's been chasing you: "Ten years of such different worlds–wasn't that enough to shift things between [Henry and her] so that even if they tried, they would never be able to fit together anymore?" That desperate quest to regain what is lost--to reanimate something dead--echoes Eliza's vividly interesting work as an art historian.

Eliza's work, in turn, reflects that of her creator, whose investigative work in piecing together the notebooks of Tennessee Williams--a project that spanned a full ten years--stands as one of the most impressive projects of theatrical and literary scholarship in recent memory. It is as though by reconstructing Williams's diaries so thoroughly, Thornton might have brought the man back to life. Yet inevitably a gap remains, and it is that gap that interests Thornton here.

Charleston is a fine addition to the recent spate of novels featuring strong female protagonists engaged in the art world, not least Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers, Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, and Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings. Yet while those novels tend to focus on the vicissitudes of making, Eliza studies what has already been made as a way of reconnecting with something lost. Her investigations into the works of portrait painter Henrietta Johnston and the slave potter Dave are riveting subplots of genuine sleuthing. They rarely yield conclusive results, but they teach Eliza something she did not expect to learn, and it is less an instruction of fact as one of empathy. For instance, she examines the stunning pots of the slave potter Dave and concludes: "This was what was left of a life, she thought. Sturdy pots that had been made for service, and yet the maker had also made them beautiful." Why? Why did he do that? Neither Eliza nor we will ever know. What is lost can never be fully recovered or understood, but as we study it, its mysteries can enchant us and even uplift us, reflect something back to us about who we are or who we want to be.

This, perhaps, is what is most affecting in Eliza's evolution as she explores her relationship with Henry. Things have indeed changed unalterably: Henry now has a nine-year-old son, Lawton, the result of his regrettable affair. The boy cannot but serve as a painful and permanent reminder of the misjudgment that ended Eliza and Henry's relationship. Yet Lawton also stands as copy to the father--a powerful reminder of his beauty and ultimate goodness. And in one of the most poignant reversals I can recall, Lawton becomes a vital ingredient in Eliza's rapprochement with Henry. And so her provocative conclusion: "There was no point in looking for what once was or might have been because you would never be able to find it. It only made sense to look for what was lost if you were prepared to find something unexpected." Eliza grows up. She learns that much can never be recovered, yet sometimes there is the chance for a kind of renewal or growth that can be all the more uplifting because of the bitterness that led to it.

These themes echo off the old streets and estates of the city of Charleston, which is itself a beguiling character in the novel. As in Orhan Pamuk's Snow, in which Istanbul serves as both foil and fodder for the protagonist's longing and questioning, here Charleston both reflects and inflames Eliza's anxieties and hopes.

The place is unchanging and predictable in its customs--a source of both appeal and disquiet, "comfort and danger"--yet it is also wonderfully variegated and surprising in its landscapes: "Everything here was sinuous, unordered, untamed." The city is deeply seductive in Thornton's meticulous rendition, and that seductiveness is embodied in Henry, who is effortlessly capable of navigating the city's different purlieus: he "knew every inch of his world, and she felt safe with him." It is as though he helps Eliza rediscover a world she had lost-- quite literally, he helps her come home again. And in her exploration of both the city and the man she thought had been lost to her, Eliza discovers something she did not expect: "Even though this world around her now was so familiar that she could navigate it blind, being back with Henry gave her access to a whole new continent of feelings. It was a world that could never be seen, but it was there--underneath the surface of everything--joyful and pure."

Charleston is unmistakably a Southern novel, not least in that it explores Faulkner's oft-cited line: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Yet, whereas for Faulkner the past is a kind of curse, as the sins and traumas of each generation are revisited upon their descendants, for Thornton the past can be a terrifically fecund place, so long as we are prepared to find something unexpected there. In a sensitive and uplifting twist on Faulkner's aphorism, Charleston offers that in grappling with the undead in our past, we can discover all the life we knew, somewhere in our hearts, was there all along. 

Editor's note:  Dan Wilner, the author of this review, is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles.

You can find Charleston on www.amazon.com

Pictured here (rotating):  Charleston book cover and author Margaret Bradham Thornton.

 
OSilas Gallery to Hold Reception Thursday, July 10, to Kick Off Summer Juried Exhibition of 26 Artists PDF Print Email

Jul. 9, 2014:  An opening reception will be held at the OSilas Gallery on the campus of Concordia College on Thursday, July 10, at 7:00 pm to kick off the Summer ARTiculated exhibition of artwork by 26 local artists.

The juried exhibition will run from July 10 to August 10. Gallery hours are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from noon to 7:00 pm and Saturdays and Sundays from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. The gallery is closed Mondays and Fridays.

Participating artists are:

Natalya Aikens
Mary Ann Balco Berry
Vivian Bergenthal
Dorothy Cancellieri
Margot Carr
Galina Dargery
Kara Daving
Katharine Dufault
Donna Faranda
Peter Fiore
Maria Friscia
Randy Frost
Sarah Glickman
Xia Goa
Cindy Green
Jacqueline Lorieo
Kathleen McSherry
Angelo Merluccio
Harvey Milman
Steve Pica
Jason Rondinelli
Kelly Rossetti
Merrill Steiger
Dan van Benthuysen
Cindy Zaglin
Vivien Zepf

Pictured here:  OSilas Gallery.

Photo by A. Warner



 
'Bye Bye Birdie' on Stage at Bronxville Women's Club this Friday, July 11 PDF Print Email

Jul. 9, 2014:  There will be two performances of the musical Bye Bye Birdie at The Bronxville Women's Club this Friday, July 11, the first at noon and the second at 6:00 pm. 

The performances are produced by New York Rhythm Kids. They run approximately 90 minutes and include a 10-minute intermission. The suggested donation is $5.

Photo courtesy Leisha Horin

 
Chamber of Commerce Announces Free Summer Concert Series July 24, August 21, and September 18 PDF Print Email

July 2, 2014:  The Bronxville Chamber of Commerce announces the return of the Bronxville Summer Concert Series--free monthly concerts from June through September outdoors in Bronxville.

Attendees can enjoy live music plus dining and dancing in the street, which is closed off to pedestrian traffic; food is available for purchase.

Each concert features a different band playing familiar cover tunes of, primarily, classic rock. Concerts alternate between Leonard Morange Park (along Parkway Road) and Park Place. The first concert, with Sue & the Fun-Ghouls, was in Leonard Morange Park on June 26. The remaining concerts are:

• Thursday, July 24:  Plan B, Park Place
• Thursday, August 21:  Third Stone, Leonard Morange Park
• Thursday, September 18:  That Duo Show, Park Place

All show times are 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm.

The concert series is produced by the Bronxville Chamber of Commerce and is sponsored by Steve Ircha, Aegis Capital; Patty Breen & Tracy Walsh of Houlihan Lawrence Real Estate; Bronxville Hearing Center; Griffin, Coogan, Sulzer & Horgan, P.C., Attorneys and Counselors at Law; EMLJ; Pete's Park Place Tavern; Pondfield Trip Service; and James Van Metter Wealth Management.

Pictured here:  Band playing at last week's Chamber concert.

Photo courtesy Susan Miele, Executive Director, Bronxville Chamber of Commerce 

 
Calling Bronxville Elementary Students in Grades Four to Six: Join 'Battle of the Books' Tournament at Bronxville Library for Summer Fun, Prizes, and Certificates PDF Print Email

Jun. 25, 2014:  The Bronxville Elementary School Library and the Bronxville Public Library are looking for team members for their 'Battle of the Books' team! All Bronxville students entering grades four to six in September of 2014 are welcome.

Battle of the Books is a book-based trivia tournament for Westchester youth. Participants will read five pre-selected books over the summer, attend team meetings, and compete (as a team) in the Westchester Library System Battle of the Books tournament on October 18, 2014.

Tournament champions will be rewarded with prizes, trophies, and bragging rights. In addition, all Bronxville team members will get certificates and prizes for participating. All team registrants will receive copies of the books to keep.

Participants must be available to attend and compete in the October 18 battle.

For more details or to sign up, contact the Bronxville Library's children's department at 914-337-7680, ext. 34, visit www.bronxvillelibrary.org, or email Erin Schirota, head of youth services, at CLOAKING .

Photo courtesy Erin Schirota, Head of Youth Services, Bronxville Public Library

 
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