Sunday, January 5, 2014

Summit Avenue by Mary Sharratt

Having read, and greatly enjoyed Ms. Sharratt’s novels The Vanishing Point and Daughters of Witching Hill, I didn't hesitate when I happened across one of her earlier works. Summit Avenue begins with an intriguing question “How can you weave a life from fairy tales?”

Spanning the years 1911-1918, it tells the story of a young German immigrant, Kathrin Albrecht, who settles in Minnesota after her mother dies. While working by day sewing flour sacks for Pillsbury, she takes English classes at night, hoping to give herself a better life. Through a young admirer, who works at his uncle’s bookshop, she finds work translating fairy tales from her native German for a professor’s elegant and erudite widow.

Her employer, Violet Waverly, offers her a home in her mansion on Summit Avenue, and something more…friendship that the innocent Kathrin is too blind to see ripening into something deeper and, by the society of the time, forbidden. When Violet tells her young friend of a romantic disappointment accompanied by disgrace in her distant youthful past that led her to leave school and marry a much older man, Kathrin naturally assumes that it involved a young man and possibly a pregnancy and abortion.

During her residence at Summit Avenue, Kathrin blossoms, not only does she enjoy Violet’s friendship, but she enjoys her work, learns to type, and begins to dress better. She also acquires an ardent suitor-John, the young man from the bookstore. But Violet doesn't approve of John; she wants Kathrin all for herself and wants her to continue her program of self-improvement by going to college.

One night, after a bath, when Kathrin innocently tries on Violet’s red kimono, Violet is so taken by the sight of her that she makes love to her. Kathrin is too astonished and overwhelmed to react, she simply submits.  Afterwards, filled with shame, she waits until Violet goes out the next day, then packs her bags and disappears. She goes to John’s room, sleeps with him in the hope of erasing what she did with Violet, then tries to get on with her life, hoping her secret will never come to light. John forges a reference for her, and she takes work in an office building, and they plan to save their money and marry in two years. But an unexpected pregnancy changes their plans.

As the old saying goes “marry in haste, repent at leisure,” and that just about sums up John and Kathrin’s marriage. But Kathrin can never forget Violet and secrets have a way of coming out.

Although I didn't enjoy this quite as much as I did the other novels I have read by Ms. Sharratt, I liked the way she wove the old Russian and German fairy tales into the story and captured the time period, morals, and ideals. It’s a very leisurely read, slow-paced, but then the characters aren't exactly living fast lives. I’ve always liked that Ms. Sharratt, in the works I've read by her, does not restrict herself to one period or place, I've come to expect something different from her each time I open one of her books and this one is true to form. If you've read and liked The Vanishing Point and/or Daughters of Witching Hill, you might want to give Summit Avenue a try, but if you’re new to this author I recommend starting with one of the others first unless you are just partial to slow-paced books.

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