Reviewed by Tara Mettler
Marly Youmans’s novel Glimmerglass is a mash-up of the gothic romance, fairy tale, and late-in-life coming-of-age genres. We are taken to the village of Cooper Patent, a town peppered with odd characters and described by one of its villagers as “the most eccentric place I’ve ever lived.”
Cynthia Sorrel, a middle-aged woman with a messy marriage behind her and a desire to find herself, has just moved to Cooper Patent. When she was younger, she had dreams to become a painter — and indeed she is a painter, though a “commercial” one, sketching historic sites for tourist souvenir-type reproductions. For this she feels she has sold out, let her true artistic impulses wither. Now she is trying to figure out who she is.
Soon after moving to the village, she is struck by a question from the local priest, Father Hale, who says to her, “You’re a pursuer of mystery … an artist, are you not?” Cynthia isn’t sure of the answer, though she wants it to be yes. This seems to be the defining question of the book.
There are a few potentially menacing characters with whom Cynthia interacts, including Teddy, the brother of Cynthia’s love interest, who seems at the very least silly and bumbling, and at most to be hiding a dark secret. Then there is Iz Hix — the sort of groundskeeper for Teddy and his brother — who is strange, physically disfigured from an accident, and at times seemingly bitter and unstable.
There are also the physical spaces in which the story takes place, spaces mysterious and cavernous, though not particularly menacing. Still deciding whether she wants to move to Cooper Patent, Cynthia visits the gatehouse, a dwelling that reminds her of “the cottage of the seven dwarves” — with seven doors leading to the outside. The house may flood, she is warned. Showing a new boldness in this new phase of her life, she thinks to herself, “Yes, she would move here and rent the gatehouse. Like a tropical stalk erupting in a New England garden plot, whim shot up and flowered.”
Cynthia eventually moves into a mansion called Sea House built into a hill. There are so many rooms in this house that Cynthia, even after some time, has not seen them all and manages to get lost inside. She learns that a young boy disappeared mysteriously into the hill many years ago; the door leading into the hill is now locked and the key lost. Cynthia wants to know what lies beyond this locked door, and trouble clearly awaits. Soon she finds herself on a fantastical journey into a sort of underworld, or parallel world, depending on your interpretation.
The most resonant parts of the book are chases Cynthia undertakes through the woods, when a muse appears as a phantom boy behind her house. She is intrigued by this apparition, and she runs after him.
Who is this boy? Is he real or phantom? This question is answered — more or less — later in the story. What is perhaps most important is that Cynthia has to paint this boy, and she does, momentously, thinking to herself, “if I never do anything else, I will have done this.” Later she claws through mud and water in the river to rescue the painting. In these moments we feel her hunger to, as the priest said, “pursue mystery,” and to protect her art. It seems we have already seen a change in her psyche.
But the book goes on, beyond her wild chases into the woods, into the otherworldly realm. This part of the story is not particularly effective as an agent of Cynthia’s transformation, though she happens upon some lovely surreal conversations and landscapes, emerging from her fantastical journey stronger and ready to “follow [her] changeable, quicksilver muse.” Strangely, however, the example of how she is changed at the end of the book has nothing to do with art, but with her ability to take a hard line with someone who has wronged her. It feels unclear how the journey has made her ready to do this, or that this was even the point of the journey in the first place.
There are other instances besides this ending when we’re expected to believe things that don’t feel authentic. For instance, it is revealed that another character is capable of horrific things, but this horrible reality doesn’t quite seem plausible — it’s too dark for the book, and we aren’t given any substantial motivation for the evil character — and this reviewer actually felt badly for that character in the end, when he or she supposedly gets what’s deserved.
Youmans’s novel has a quick-moving plot that will keep the pages turning. It has moments of lovely revelation and surreal imagination, effectively combining feverish-feeling fantasy with Cynthia’s struggle to allow passion for art — and life — back into her life.
Youmans is the author of several novels as well as volumes of poetry. You can find out more about her by visiting her blog.
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