Review by Ann McDonald
From Erika Robuck, bestselling author of ‘Hemingway’s Girl,’ comes a brilliant new novel about a literary couple. The unlikely marriage between Nathaniel Hawthorne, the celebrated novelist, and Sophia Peabody, the invalid artist, was a true union of passion and intellect.
“Lift Not The Painted Veil” – Percy Bysshe Shelley. This poem opens the book and I hoped that it would not overshadow the the narrative. I loved the simplicity and beauty of the poem and it didn’t put itself between you and this tale, it became the bedrock for a wonderful book. This is the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne, novelist, and Sophia Peabody, an invalid artist who came together and united against all odds.
1833/4: Sophia and her sister Mary are sent to Cuba to a plantation owned by friends of the family, Madam Morrell and her husband Doctor Morrell. Sophia suffers greatly with headaches that leave her very frail and weak. It is hoped the change of air will bring her to good health. In return for their keep, the girls will tutor the Morrell children and children of the slaves. The slaves of neighboring plantation owners are treated very badly and they witness a beating that leaves them both shocked and wounded in their souls, Mary more than Sophia.
They are introduced to a Spanish family and Sophia develops feelings for Don Fernando, the son, and he for her. It’s at this juncture we discover that marriage and children are not to be encouraged for Sophia, the bearing of children would cost her her life, her mother believes. She is influenced to develop her talent as an artist. The vivid colors and magical sunsets trigger deeper needs in her and Mary tells her mother which leads to a coldness between the sisters. Eventually, it is time for a return to Salem, Massachusetts and home and hearth, her Cuban journal firmly in her grasp. Fernando and his brother Manuel fade into the past.
Spring 1864: Robuk’s story shifts to the future and shows both Nathaniel and Sophia, much older and both suffering from illnesses. Hawthorne is getting ready to go on a journey with his friend Pierce and Sophia is taking him to the railway station, a fair distance, by carriage. Then the story returns to Salam, Mass., in 1837. Here we meet Elizabeth, Sophia’s oldest sister and a writer in her own stead and well-known for her ideas on the role women play or are not allowed to play in society. Elizabeth comes to Sophia’s room and insists she come downstairs and meet Nathaniel Hawthorne, a writer and a gentleman.
Sophia initially refuses but she is intrigued and when she finally does meet him, they are both instantly taken with each other, much to Elizabeth’s chagrin. When they eventually wed, after much delay, they are enthralled with each other and so it begins. The children born and lost, the struggle to survive in unforgivingly poor straits. Author Erika Robuck takes you into the depths of their love and the soaring heights of accomplishments striven for, and gained. You travel with them to England, France and eventually Italy, before coming back to the wayside, the only home they ever owned in Massachusetts.
Robuck does not stand in her own light, she lets the story unfold and she strings her pearls at will, she never underestimates her ability to let them fly and the poem “Lift Not The Painted Veil,” makes total sense. I highly recommend this book, it has some wonderful moments and I wept. I found an old copy of the poem “Beyond the River,” by Irish poet Charles Anderson Read (1841 – 1878) and it closed this story for me.
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