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