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30 March 2012

Clair de Lune, by Jetta Carleton

When we are young, particularly when young and lonely, we imagine a future and dwell in it, as later we dwell in a past we also have imagined. So, on those fall nights, she dreamed herself forward into Italy as she knew it from the English poets, and the Paris of Hemingway, and the New York City of Katherine Anne Porter. It was a rich improbable future, made up of other people's pasts. Such fantasies were her entertainment, the pageants of a thoroughgoing romantic, and she invented within them, projected and plotted course, until the steeple clock, striking the late hour, brought her back to reality and the grudging acknowledgement that, far as she was from Paris or New York, she had a job and she could damn well be contented. As Mother said, she was lucky.
Uncovered fifty years later and published twenty years after the author's death, Clair de Lune is an absolutely gorgeous piece of writing, and it's the kind of book that made me wish I was back in college again, selecting this book to read for my thesis instead of what I did pick.

Jetta Carleton was the bestselling author of The Moonflower Vine in the early 1960s, which captured readers instantly. At some point, history seemed to forget all about this, and it was a book only found in used book stores, but Harper Perennial decided to republish that book as part of their "Rediscovered Classics" series. And thank goodness! Carleton's Clair de Lune subsequently made its way to print as well, and I'm a better reader for it. At the risk of astonishing Carleton and Hemingway fans, hers is a sweet and simplistic style of writing which reminds me just a little bit of him.

The early 1940s is a time of innocence, the pre-war era shielding Americans from the realities of war. I'm an avid fan of films from that time, and while I know it's the movies, it still seemed there was a gentle naivete represented that now has become this glamorous example of a vintage era. I enjoy diving into it, reading about a "simpler time."

Young Barbara Allen Liles, known as Allen, has just secured a position as a teacher at a small college. While dreaming of eventually seeing the world, moving to New York, and becoming a writer, Allen spends each day teaching the stories she loves with her students. Since she's much closer in age with her students than her colleagues, Allen is a little out of place between what she's supposed to be as a figure of authority, and a young woman who wants a little adventure. The close friendship which forms between her and two students becomes a small scandal, one that places the job she's come to love in jeopardy.
He stood outside the screen door, and for a moment there wasn't another word out of either of them. Then he took the mask off. It was ---'s face, all right, but this was not the same boy who, moments ago, had sat at her table. He was not quite the same, but she recognized him. She knew him at once. She had been looking for him all spring, in the night, through the alleys and into the park all over town, drawing closer and closer, never knowing that this was the one - not the other, but this one - nor that he would stand at her door with his heart in his mouth and a crooked green face in his hand. It hit her like a ton of bricks. "Come in!" she said. (p.108)
After all, this is not a time when friendships like this don't come with rumor, gossip, and innuendo, and when it goes a little bit further, it's even tougher to rein back in. But it's not the whole of this story. There is so much more movement and beauty to it. At the heart of it all, the story is about love: love of books and literature, dreams of the road not taken in life, and the strong fresh love of the very first time, whether it's love with another, or in realizing one's own independence. Both can be heady and overpowering, and Allen experiences this unconventional romance, one that might change the future she's planned for herself. It's the fact that she can make choices without needing anyone's approval that give her strength. It's this empowerment, and feminism encapsulated in a book written more than forty years ago that is absolutely amazing.

Jetta Carleton crafted a brilliantly sweet and sad story of the slow budding of independence for a young woman in an innocent time. I must admit, it's a perfect companion story to recent books I've read such as Jennifer Haigh's Baker Towers and even Stephen King's 11/22/63. It just feels like there is a little bit of magic in the pre-war era. Maybe it's because when you are sheltered from all the things that could break innocence, things really do feel so much easier. I might be swept up in it all, in the powerful honesty of the times, the simple expectations and high standards of a bygone era (or as King calls it, the Land of Ago). I loved everything about this story.

This is what I so enjoy about reading a book that was considered "modern" during its time. We have a pure and perfect glance at what life was like in this "simpler" era, with love, dreams, hope, and regrets filling each long day and quiet night, before a country grew up and learned that innocence, while strong and sheltering, was no longer.
There's always something else we think we want to do, at some stage in our lives. But we get over it, we outgrow it. And after a while we realize that where we are is where we are meant to be. (p.244)
About the Author
Jetta Carleton was born in 1913 in Holden, Missouri, and earned a Master's degree at the University of Missouri. She worked as a schoolteacher, a radio copywriter in Kansas City, and a television advertising copywriter in New York City. She and her husband settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico where they ran a small publishing house, The Lightning Tree. She died in 1999. The Moonflower Vine was, until now, her only published novel.

Thank you so very much to TLC Book Tours for inviting me to this. I'm so excited to now read The Moonflower Vine, and I think I might just go ahead and download it this evening. For all the tour stops of this amazing book, click here.


  1. I'm reading the Moonflower Vine right now and am really enjoying it. I'll have to check this book out, too.

  2. I have this from netgalley but haven't had a chance to read it yet. I liked your positive review as lots of the others I have sen have been fairly negative.

  3. I saw this at the bookstore yesterday and was really curious about it. After such a great review from you, I'm going to have to add it to my wish list! It sounds like just the kind of book I would enjoy.

  4. I definitely want to read this now. I love books that take place in the 1940s and your review has sold me :)

  5. Wow, you've made this book sound amazing!!

  6. Interesting to pair this book with Stephen King's latest book, but I could see where they'd be very complimentary. So glad you loved it! Thanks for being on the tour. :)

  7. I loved Clair de Lune! I want to read The Moonflower Vine ASAP.

  8. I just finished this book, and really enjoyed it.
    Good comparison to Hemingway. I thought the simplistic, yet lovely way it was written packed a powerful punch in its timely message.

  9. Wow, this does sound amazing, and thinking back, I realize that every review I have read on this book has been incredibly positive which says a lot. I need to check this one out, and I definitely enjoyed reading your very thoughtful and insightful review. Thanks, Natalie!

  10. Definitely want to get my hands on this one! There does seem to be a sort of magical patina to stories set in this era, and I'm intrigued by anything "vintage." Definitely adding this to my list.

  11. I love the idea of a "rich" future made up of "other people's pasts." The Moonflower Vine has been on my TBR for such a long time, and your review made me want to pick it up! Thanks, Natalie!

  12. This one sounds amazing - like you, I love reading about that era. My parents were teenagers then, and I particularly enjoy reading about what the world was like when they were young. I will definitely be getting both of these books!

  13. I love that someone found this little gem and published it!

    Thanks for being on the tour!

  14. I liked the Moonflower Vine a lot and was so gald to hear they found another of her novels.
    I just bought it today in a book shop and your lovely review tells me I'm going to like it a lot.

  15. This sounds too good to pass up so here I go adding it to my list. Don't know whether to thank you or not, but on the whole, I think I will. It just sounds like a very special book. Never heard of THE MOONFLOWER VINE, where was I during those years? Or worse, maybe I read it and forgot?

  16. The cover totally caught my eye! And I too love to read books set in this era- you are right about the feeling of innocence. I will have to pick this one up!


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