A new novel celebrates romance and a romantically quaint vision of Maine.
- By: Debra Spark
You don’t need to live in Maine to know that the state is — in at least one corner of the popular imagination — a cure-all: the peace of a summer by the lake or a day at the beach suggests year-round contentment, a life lived honestly and purely, far from Internet connections, failing financial markets, and stressed out opportunists. Katharine Davis’ East Hope (NAL Accent, New York, New York; paperback; 352 pages; $15) charmingly reinforces this conventional — albeit somewhat clichéd — wisdom.
Her second novel, following Capturing Paris, tells the initially parallel tales of forty-four-year-old Caroline Waverly, a Chevy Chase widow, and Will Harmon, a Pennsylvania college professor. Both characters find their way to the seaside community of East Hope, Maine, where they begin to construct new lives. Caroline is drawn by an aging home, once the property of Lila, her late husband’s aunt, and now Caroline’s to pull together in order to sell, ideally to redress her own suddenly worrisome financial situation. As for Will, he’s just been unfairly let go from his job, when he sees an ad — in Down East, of all places — for a used bookstore in need of a temporary manager to live over the shop and take care of sales for the ailing owner.
Both protagonists are escaping an unpleasant reality. Caroline is swimming in financial troubles and regrets a one-night stand she’s had with her late husband’s business partner. As for Will, he’s been in a commuter marriage for years. Now fired, he’s free to join his high-powered wife in New York City. Only he bristles at house-husband status; he’d rather go to Maine, site of his seemingly distant honeymoon, for at least a brief stay.
The scene is set for a romance, and a romance, of sorts, ensues, but the real love affair is between the novel’s
protagonists and East Hope itself. The town isn’t the actual Hope, Maine, but some idyllic spot farther Down East, a place that somehow manages isolation and good restaurants, the lovely loneliness of an abandoned beach with enough of a community for a hopping “Wine and Read” night at the used bookstore. People say “ayuh” in East Hope, even as their properties entice wealthy developers. An honest portrait of Maine? Hard to say, but it’s an enchanting view all the same, and Katharine Davis’ descriptions of place make it all the more so. Here’s Caroline on arriving at the home that she’s inherited: “She noticed the stale scent of the house, in sharp contrast to the outdoor freshness of the day. Later she was assaulted by the damp mustiness of a linen closet when she reached in to find sheets for her bed, the faded perfume of some kind of talcum powder in Lila’s bedroom; the smell of a cracked, yellowing bar of soap above the kitchen sink, floor wax, old clothing, furniture polish, moist plaster; the pinched scent of ashes in the fireplace, a hint of wood smoke, all the smells that suggested the layers of living, the closely guarded history of an old house.”
Elsewhere, the novel isn’t as effective. Though Caroline and Will are well-developed and appealing, the book’s secondary characters — Caroline’s son, her ex-lover who keeps on irritatingly calling her “Red,” and Will’s bound-for-success wife — are rather wooden. Caroline’s mother is allowed moments of real insight, but her sister — a “perfect” blonde matron — is a bit of a type, too. The unevenness continues throughout the novel. There are many melodramatic scenes — when Caroline refuses money from her ex-lover — but also domestic moments that seem spot on, as when Caroline remembers nighttime conversations with her son, in which they both declare they love the other “more.” At points, East Hope seems clunky and even amateurish — what with its many clichés, sentimental dialogue, and unlikely plot twists. A good edit could have eradicated some of the awkward point of view shifts and lines like one that tells the reader that a rare disease was an extremely rare disease. Still, even with these flaws, East Hope has real appeal, partially because it is so undeniably sweet-natured. The novel feels, in the end, like one of the rotting, old properties in which its central characters live: marred but lovable, all the same.