Reviewed by Matthew Simmons
One of the joys of going into a used bookstore is the possibility of finding some rare, forgotten treasure. If you’re a bibliophile, like I am, you know the feeling I’m talking about: the excitement of taking something possibly magical home, the deep, satisfying joy of finishing that book, knowing that you’re maybe the first person in a long time to feel that deep, satisfying joy.
And that’s how Gamel Woolsey’s Patterns on the Sand felt.
Woolsey is a largely forgotten writer, and this is her lost novel. A daughter of early 20th century Charleston society, she was part of America’s “Lost Generation” of expats living in Europe. She witnessed the Spanish Civil War and was possibly Betrand Russell’s lover. And she wrote poetry, and memoir, and fiction—including this gorgeous novel that went unpublished during her lifetime, seeing print for the first time only in late 2012. And how lucky we are for this, as this novel begins so simply, so unpretentiously, and unfolds like something written not by a forgotten 20th century Southern writer, but like a novel of the South Carolina Lowcountry written by a long-lost Bronte sister.
Maybe I write in hyperbole here; certainly, it’s not Jane Eyre (but what is?). But Patterns on the Sand is an incredibly lovely book, written in sparse, dreamy prose, with a plot that moves along so smoothly, so perfectly, you can’t help but continue reading, can’t help but be hypnotized by its beauty. I read it in a sitting. And then I read it again a few days later. It is just that kind of book.
Patterns is the story of Sara Warren. Sara is not wealthy, she is not poor. “Middle-class” perhaps does not explain it, as her family are not tradesmen. Rather, she is a member of that loneliest class of people—and that class that no longer exists—those who float on the periphery of high society, unable to associate with those in the classes below, but not with enough wealth or connections to exist comfortably within capital-S Society. Yet, even though she can never be a full part of it, Sara exists in Charleston Society, alongside her comfortably-Society friend Elizabeth Gordon, and Elizabeth’s brothers, William and Rush. And early on, this seems like little more than a novel of Pretty Young Things going to parties, involving themselves in romantic escapades and the intrigue of snubbing and being snubbed, things that are pretty to read but feel, largely, empty.
But that never feels like the whole story. The Great War is still across the Atlantic, but on the minds of everyone. There’s a darkness, a sadness underneath the surface that points to this not being an empty novel, but something more sober, more reflective, more contemplative, more meaningful. And as Sara’s friendships and romances continue to develop throughout the novel, you start to find the meaning, and begin to recognize Woolsey’s great talent. A conversation on an empty beach is one of the more gorgeous and romantic bits of dialogue you’ll read. A flirtation in the haze of a Charleston night is chastely erotic in a way that suggests an odd marriage of James and Lawrence. An unexpected tragedy late in the novel is a confusing, heartbreaking occurrence that leaves you gobsmacked. You’ve been reading for five hours; the empty novel of parties and Pretty Young Things has unassumingly, subtly turned into something much more. And you don’t know how it happened; but you feel so bloody lucky you were there to witness it. And you tell a friend about this book, and you re-read it, and you pass it along to someone else.
Woolsey never gives us a simple conclusion to Sara understanding who she is, how she fits into a world she can’t help but be a part of, but to which she can never belong. Woolsey never mourns the Lowcountry world that, like elite Society all about the West, is being dismantled by the Great War. Rather, what she gives us is a wonderful evocation of a time and place, a social group, a single, intriguing, and interesting woman who lives through all of this. It is a very good thing Patterns on the Sand has finally found publication; it is a beautiful, and too-long-forgotten romantic novel.