By David Adams Cleveland
Winsted Press | 2013 | 543 pages
Reviewed by Jan Alexander
A Hidden Work of Art
Love’s attraction: one of the mysteries of life that Henry David Thoreau pondered and never solved. In both his first novel, With a Gem-Like Flame, and now his second one, David Adams Cleveland, an author who is not yet well known but deserves to be, wraps a pair of lovers in multiple layers of mystery, chipping away like an obsessed art restorer through contemporary grit until a nearly-forgotten masterpiece begins to emerge.
Fittingly so, since Cleveland is an art historian in his day job, and a specialist in American Tonalism at that. The Tonalists included James McNeill, Whistler, George Inness, and Ralph Albert Blakelock, artists interested in projecting feeling through palpable atmosphere and highly influenced by Transcendentalism and the writings of Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The psychological mystery that is at the heart of this novel begins in the land where the Transcendentalists trod, along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
On a warm night in 1969, two awkward teenagers fall in love, sneaking out of a school dance for the boys of Emerson Academy and the girls of Alcott Academy and becoming the unwitting conduits for a tale of deceptions that traverse back through three generations.
Cleveland has woven a more conventional mystery into the story as well, in that 30 years after the fateful dance, Sandra Palmer, the blue-blooded girl who seduced scholarship student Michael Collins then inexplicably betrayed him, has committed suicide. Or has she? If you write a mystery involving the death of someone who happens to have an identical twin, literary law pretty much requires that the twin must die in a fog of ambiguity. (See also: Gun on the mantel that must go off.) Is the dead woman Sandra, a respected art restorer who lived for many years in Venice and returned to Massachusetts to go to graduate school at Harvard, whom Michael still loves after all these years. Or is she Angela Palmer, a wild girl of the 1960s who became a porn star?
For Michael, now a Washington lawyer and political fixer with a scandal and a $400,000 cash bribe on his back, a trip back to his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts—for the funeral of his own brother, who never left the working class-- turns into a search for elusive truths that began not 30 years before, but eight decades earlier, when Sandra’s grandparents were at the center of a group of expat artists in Venice who gave little thought to tomorrow.
The brilliant brushstrokes of language and the perilous allure of three generations of Palmers were a serendipitous discovery for me. Roaming the fringes of the New York literary world, I received an invitation to hear Cleveland speak at the Princeton Club in New York about his experiences with writing and publishing. There sat a middle aged man who said bookstores had mis-cast his first novel, placing it in the mystery section, when really it was a Venice novel aimed at the sensibilities of readers who love the Venice of Henry James.
Without a strong sales record he’d had trouble selling his second novel until a small quality house picked it up—and published it with handsome art reproductions throughout. I went home with a copy of Love’s Attraction but didn’t have high expectations. For every Herman Melville inspecting goods for U.S. Customs because his novel about a captain’s grand obsession with a great white whale didn’t sell well for its first 50 years, there must be at least a thousand unknown scribes whose prose ranges from tediously solipsistic to learned but bereft of anything magical.
But I opened the pages and soon was lost in the meanderings of two troubled families and the games that played out amongst Sandra/Angela’s famous artist grandfather and the beautiful gadabout model who was their grandmother, Sandra Chillingworth Palmer; the older Sandra’s own twin sister named Angela; and Michael’s Venetian stonecutter grandfather, Giovanni Maronetti, who, as it turns out, met the Palmers and went back to America with them.
Sometimes a brilliant novel does float around neglected. Happily for Cleveland, Love’s Attraction may be on the verge of discovery; Wolf Films, the company that produced Law & Order, has bought the rights for an HBO mini-series.
Those Palmers are a seductive clan that can get away with almost anything, and it’s hard to shake the uneasy feeling that Cleveland might have absolved at least one of them too readily of suspicion of murder. If there’s a flaw in the story-telling it’s that they’ve captivated even the author—but it’s hard for an observer not to get lost in the lush debauchery of the grandparents’ life in pre-World War I Venice, and the messages Joseph Palmer conveyed through his art.
There is, for example, a painting he did in 1924, after his beloved wife had died in childbirth at the hands of Venetian doctors and he’d returned to Massachusetts with Angela and Giovanni. The painting was called “Dreaming Sisters,” and the upright Brahmin Chillingworths had sued to keep it from public view. “The nude women lay together in the grassy meadow in a half embrace of tangled limbs and disheveled hair, on the verge of sleep or just waking, The half-lidded eyes and parted lips hinted at a swoon or a burgeoning awareness, of some raw sensual gratification, a palpable air of postcoital bliss.”
Michael, viewing the sisters in their racy tableau, wonders if it’s just another form of dexterous subterfuge. Suffice to say, the grandparents’ legacy lives on within the latter-day Angela, who is not only the star but also the producer of artistic porn videos, and grows rich from her self-made empire while the rest of the Palmer fortune declines.
The marble sculptures by Michael’s grandfather, on the other hand, seem to burst with sorrow over what might have been. In one aching description: “Michael now saw in those marble faces a lament for a lost love, something unfinished, perhaps abandoned; and in that love transmuted to stone, a terrible disappointment.” A harbinger, it seems, of Michael’s own fear that Sandra’s love has turned to stone. It isn’t just her betrayal; he can’t shake the idea that the Palmers, though their family fortune is gone and their lives have taken twisted paths, are too good for the likes of the former scholarship boy.
But he pursues the truth with a magnificent obsession—there’s that staple that makes great fiction larger than life again—hiding in plain sight from the law (Michael Collins’ Washington troubles have forced him to disappear) and pretending to be a Thoreau scholar named William Channing. Not too many people in town get it, that the purported scholar in their midst has the same name as William Ellery Channing, a footloose Transcendentalist poet who wrote the first biography of Thoreau. That oversight borne of ignorance is believable, though it’s a bit of a stretch that in the late 1990s, with the world fast discovering the Internet, a man on the lam could disguise himself with only a beard and a fake name. Still, it somehow feels right for art’s sake—akin to the liberties you can take with an eyewitness view in a painting versus photojournalism—as well as for Michael’s sake, because at last he’s taken up the career he probably should have had.
He thinks of the “losses and disappointments, which had turned Thoreau into a confirmed bachelor, facetious and skeptical of women: a man who had succeeded at many practical things but remained tortured by feelings of failure in his chosen field as a writer and naturalist. He had been frustrated, too, in a life of inquiry running out, by his inability to discern the underlying principals—the theory of evolution and genetic inheritance nearly within his grasp—that explained the connection between all living things, notwithstanding the power of love, the attraction.” Michael’s pursuits are those of Thoreau in a microcosm, pared down from all of humanity to the inheritance that stalks the Palmer family and his own, both families stamped with the rocky repercussions of love’s attraction. It won’t be a spoiler if I say that when you fall in love with a Palmer twin, a deception worthy of a novel in its own right is essential to a happy ending.