Jennifer Donnelly, A Gathering Light
In early 19th century Adirondacks, Mattie Gokey is split between duty and ambition. Duty to her father and younger sisters, who are left to manage alone since their mother died, and ambition to study in New York in order to become a writer. Her conflicting desires are further complicated by her falling in love with Royal Loomis, the son of a farmer and neighbor, a young man of dreams and ambitions very far from her own.
As Mattie is working in a hotel during the summer, in order to earn some money to help her father (but wishing she could put aside something for the ride to New York, where her dreams are awaiting her), a young woman is found drowned in a lake. She went boating with her fiancé but his body was never found. Mattie is in possession of letters addressed to the man, which the young woman gave her to destroy, before her fatal boating session.
Though the murder is based on a true story, the character of Mattie is an invention, and I liked this young woman torn between family duties and intellectual aspirations. Until the end, I hoped that her intellectual quest wound prevail, and that she would go study. I won’t spoil the ending by telling if my expectations were fulfilled or not…
From reviews, I had read that A Gathering Light is a very involving story, but my involvement in it was gradual. If at the beginning I could easily let it after 10 pages to do something else, as I was nearing the end I felt the urge to read on, until I knew what Mattie’s final decision would be.
I liked the many references to literature (since Mattie and her friend Weaver are literature lovers), and I realize that Mattie has the same misconception I had before reading Jane Austen’s biography by Carol Shields. After observing her friend Minnie busy with her recently-born twins, she writes "And I knew in my bones that Emily Dickinson wouldn’t have written even one poem if she’d had two howling babies, a husband bend on jamming another one into her, a house to run, a garden to tend, three cows to milk, twenty chicken to feed, and four hired hands to cook for. I knew then why they didn’t marry. Emily [Brontë], Jane [Austen] and Louisa [May Alcott]". I would have reasoned the same, until I realized by reading Austen’s biography that she would have gladly married, had she met someone she loved and who wanted to marry her despite her lack of money. And, I wonder, if she had, would/could she have gone on writing?
I liked A Gathering Light for the questions it raises about the difficulties for a woman to escape her fate and free herself, in the beginning of the twentieth century…