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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

May 24, 2012

Book Review: The Cottage at Glass Beach


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Heather Barbieri's The Cottage at Glass Beach is admittedly not the typical book that makes it way on to my desk. Committing the unpardonable sin of judging a book by its cover, the dust jacket clearly shows a young woman traipsing along the beach, starfish well in hand. Given the title, it's easy to dismiss the work as a cliché and move on to other reads.

The book's description also doesn't help to pique the reader's interest. The opening lines read as follows:

Married to the youngest attorney general in Massachusetts State history, Nora Cunningham is a picture-perfect political wife and a doting mother. But her carefully constructed life falls to pieces when she, along with the rest of the world, learns of the infidelity of her husband, Malcom.

I'm sure that writing cover descriptions is a challenging gig, but the summary reads like the re-run of a Lifetime, made-for-TV movie. This does a serious disservice to the novel and what actually makes it special.

The real contribution makes Barbieri makes in her new book is the way she captures the relationship between mothers and daughters in clear, unvarnished prose. This honesty allows her to provide a modern insight into a particular dynamic of literature that has more or less lain dormant since the era of Victorian literature.

One example comes early in the novel, as main character Nora Cunningham evacuates her family to Glass Beach. Eldest daughter Ella is clearly a Daddy's girl who blames her mother for driving him away. Youngest daughter Annie is an open mind, as free of judgments as her sister is filled with them, and a bit too young to fully understand her parents' separation. As the three set out to explore the island, Ella scorns the main village Portakinny as "Portapotty," and repeatedly echoes her hopes to return to Boston. This makes Ella a constant source of negativity for Nora, yet it is easy to sympathize with the little girl's frustration. The scandal besetting her parents has had incalculable effects on Ella, both personally and socially, leaving her confused, not knowing whom to trust.

Ella's reticence to embrace the island and her parents' circumstance creates a palpable stress for her mother Nora who is genuinely torn about the future of her marriage. Whenever questions about the future arise, Nora's reply is the universally recognized phrase of non-commitment, "we'll see." But Barbieri's prose demonstrates that the answer is a pained utterance for Nora who acutely realizes how disingenuous the words are. The fact is, Nora is just as lost as Ella and the whole point of coming to Burke's Island is to discover some insight that will shed light on what is to come.

This notion of deliberate self discovery gives Nora a dimension of strength that makes her character extremely dynamic. The storyline is that Nora is lost, trying to make sense of her life, but the story itself is more about how Nora holds it together for her girls and learns about herself in the process.

Nora's love interest in the book makes this sense of strength even more pronounced. Even as she struggles to sort out her feelings toward her estranged husband, Nora is also left to grapple with how she feels toward a new man in her life. Again, this could easily become a cliché, but Barbieri's writing frames the situation as the simple reality that relationships are messy - particularly when a partner's infidelity is at issue. In Nora, readers see the concurrent facts that old habits of love die hard, while the human need for intimacy never completely vanishes.

The mother/daughter theme is further reflected in Nora's relationship with her Aunt Maire. Nora's own mother has passed away at some point in her early childhood, a matter that also becomes an integral aspect of the plot. But her aunt acts a subtle mother figure for Nora over the course of the novel. Over blueberry pie, wine, and walks in the garden, Aunt Maire provides arms-length advice to Nora about her situation and the mysterious death of her mother - all while commending a keen sense of love toward Nora when she sorely needs it.

I suppose the themes above may not resonate for all readers. This is true for any novel. But for those seeking to get lost this summer and reconsider life's priorities, Barbieri's voice is clear and inviting. Whatever the book lacks in plot, it makes up for in character development and introspection in spades.


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