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

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.