John Casey's novel, Spartina, won the National Book Award in 1989. His new novel, Compass Rose, the sequel, can be read on its own, but of course it is helpful to have some background. I did not reread it, but I've done a little research for you: in Spartina, Casey explores class issues and the conflict between fishermen and developers in a town in Rhode Island. The hero, Dick Pierce, a fisherman, builds a boat in an attempt to control his life and business. He also has an affair with upper-class Elsie Buttrick, who has his baby. Naturally, this causes anguish to his wife, May.
These details are quickly recounted at the beginning of the new novel, Compass Rose, but the perspective is entirely different. Casey relegates Dick to the background and focuses on the relationships between the women: Elsie, a natural resources officer for the state who spends most of her time thinking about sex even when she is patrolling the marshes; her daughter, Rose, who grows up to be a talented singer; Dick's wife, May, a rather shadowy character whose life with Dick has been shattered by Elsie, but who kindly becomes a second mother to Rose; and Mary Scanlon, a chef who lives with Elsie to help take care of Rose.
This arresting, traditional novel is written very much in the style of the fiction of the '70s and '80s, before the passion for overstuffed historical novels swept American writers and changed the show-don't-tell style of writing to what I call tell-and-show. One can breathe deeply and enjoy the immediacy of a novel like Compass Rose, which refreshingly isn't crammed with historical information between the lines. Set in the late 20th century, sometime before cell phones and computers fractured attention, the scenes of Casey's new novel are simply but luxuriantly developed, unfolding at a slow pace that reflects a more concentrated attention. The quotidian details of the women's lives are beautifully revealed.
But here is my problem. I love Casey's writing, but I don't believe in Elsie. Casey is in love with Elsie, who seems very much a male fantasy to me, sportswoman-dominatrix by day, trollop by night (at least in her youth). She has a "trailer-park trash" air, and I have to keep reminding myself that she is upper-class, has rich relatives, and owns the house she shares with Mary. She is a self-centered woman who dislikes other women, whose idea of sexiness is to wear a red dress and have sex clandestinely in the bushes, who enjoys seducing men but does not want a relationship. Yet she wants to be at the center at all times. She does not have friends. In one scene, while she is doing her ranger stuff, she spies on a fisherman breaking some rules and has a voyeuristic sexual fantasy. I wish this were sexy: I found it simply bad sex. Elsie is not the kind of women women like: we prefer a little loyalty. Poor May! In fact, I know very few like Elsie--thank God!
But, as Casey reminds us, she is a bright woman who attended an exclusive school and studied Latin. (Latin stands for all good things, as it should.) The Latin is mentioned again, again, and again, because Elsie was the favorite student of one of the most fascinating characters in the book, Miss Perry, a prim, eccentric, philosophical retired Latin teacher, who has a strong bond to Dick and his family.
I am very impressed by Miss Perry's vision of death: she has a dream in which death is the loss of grammar. She very much does not want this. A nightmare for Latin teachers. Elsie takes care of Miss Perry after she has a stroke. Elsie's love of Miss Perry is probably her most likable quality. I wanted to see what Miss Perry saw in her.
So this is a mix of perfect sentences, marred for me by a post-feminist cartoonish heroine who I rather think some other women will have a difficult time accepting, too. I am not yet finished, however, and if Elsie becomes real to me I'll let you know.