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By MARY POPHAM
Early in her new novel, At the Breakers, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall mentions two classics, Persuasion and Middlemarch. These titles foreshadow that her subject will mainly delineate women’s roles and their relationships to others: mothers and daughters, friends and lovers, co-workers and employers. Examining from many angles, the author writes of understanding and lack of understanding between the generations and the sexes. She explores the lapses of sanity when women are desperate for love. There are distressing scenes of rape, the fear that follows, and the difficulty of regaining trust in other men and trust in self to make better choices.
While refurbishing an old hotel in Sea Cove, New Jersey, Jo feels that her life is a failure at age 42. Although she has survived three bad marriages, worked to earn a college degree while raising three daughters and still has a teenage son at home, she sees the future she wants to live, yet feels doomed not to achieve it.
At the once-grand hotel, Jo paints walls as she repairs her own life. She envisions a fix-up of motherhood and a second chance to win approval in the eyes of her mother, who thinks Jo only produces chaos. She has a plan to draw her daughters near to keep them free from the bad choices she made. She mourns having gotten pregnant at 14, being forced into marriage and leaving the state. She regrets the years trying to recapture that lost youth—what she missed. “She had felt her beauty, her sexiness, beginning its long slow recessional, before she’d ever had a chance to experience it, while only wanting what everyone wants.”
Taylor-Hall paints her characters with sympathy: Jo, who feels smart in books, dumb about men; her mother who followed Catholic tradition as she’d been taught; Jo’s daughters, each working out problems with men, mostly stemming from feelings of inadequacy. The youngest and most troubled cries, “I knew you loved me, Mom, I just didn’t think you saw me.”
As Jo fights her guilt, she is drawn to a different kind of man—a former professor, Victor Mangold. There are wonderful, dream-like segments when she visits him in New York and savors the life she longs for: one in the academic, intellectual world of music, poetry, with new friends and stimulating conversation.
This novel has everything: hurting, healing, adventure, danger, love and sex. Taylor-Hall’s dazzling scenes of work, wine, music and dancing enhance the emotional depth of the material.
All the way, we are pulling for Jo, to see her relax in knowing she is succeeding as a mother, as a friend, as a lover. Jo’s life has not been perfect, but Taylor-Hall writes scenes from her past and her present that reveal Jo’s courage: when she saves a child from drowning, when she stands up to her stalker, when she speaks her mind to her children at the risk of losing them. We believe in Jo’s power to recover from her spoiled youth, enough to value her future and choose it well.
Mary Popham is a writer who lives in Louisville. She earned a master of fine arts in writing from Spalding University.