Sabine, the outsider returned to Durham after decades away, is realizing her pivotal opportunity to break open the little world of the Pentlands…whether or not she’ll take the chance is hard to guess. What opportunity? I’ll explain in a moment.
Bromfield’s growing on me as an author. He gives Olivia Pentland some really rich relationships—her relationship to her husband is really rocky (as I mentioned in the last post), but her relationship to her father-in-law is very close. It’s a strange relationship, not loving so much as trusting. Old John Pentland can’t bring himself to trust much of anyone, but when there are decisions to be made, he doesn’t turn to his sister or his son, but rather to his daughter-in-law, the Irish girl who may never belong but whose strength it seems the family could not do without. Bromfield is good at the slow reveal with Old John…we know from the beginning that it’s a bit scandalous that he shows so much attention to a local woman he’s been friends with for years (they play cards together). It seemed at first like it was a class issue—no Pentland ought to be associating with someone low, but no one can challenge Old John, the paterfamilias. But occasional off-handed mentions of “her”, and needing to care for “her”, build a realization that John’s wife is still living…that she has lived out the last 20 or 30 years as an invalid, so mentally unstable that the family lives in fear of having to have her committed. And yet John is no Mr. Rochester. He visits his wife every morning, despite her inability to connect with him or have a meaningful conversation. And then he goes for a ride on his cantankerous old mare, and perhaps looks in on that woman friend of his, old Mrs. Soames. I get the sense that nothing has ever happened between them; that nothing ever could happen. It’s an interesting scenario.
And this is not the only interesting scenario. Briefly, the power alluded to at the beginning of this post, the power Sabine has, relates to the Boston Irish O’Hara, who has bought Sabine’s old family home and refurbished it. He scandalizes good old members of society (like Aunt Cassie, who is the most vocal defender of the Pentland family honor) simply by being. Anson Pentland is horrified that O’Hara is taking an interest in Anson and Olivia’s daughter, Sybil, by riding with her in the afternoons—he wants it stopped. But O’Hara has revealed to Sabine that what really interests him is the radiant and lively Olivia Pentland: he is in love, he says, and he wants Sabine to help him find a chance to talk with Olivia alone. She wonders what to do—she asks him if this is quite moral, and of course he cannot answer yes, but only that he’d thought she would understand.
I like where the book has taken me so far. It’s not The Age Of Innocence, which was about whether a person can escape this kind of rule-bound confining society. It wants to explore something else…how long these societies can last, burdened under the weight of hypocrisy and secrecy. If John runs off with Mrs. Soames, and Olivia with O’Hara, that will be the end of whatever “Durham society” has been for centuries, and poor old Aunt Cassie will probably keel over into an early grave. But I think society’s stronger than that, and I wonder how these tensions will play out. Bromfield’s got me hooked—I want to know what happens next.