At its core, Gregory Blake Smith’s The Maze at Windermere is a love-letter to Newport, Rhode Island.
At its core, Gregory Blake Smith’s The Maze at Windermere is a love-letter to Newport, Rhode Island. Smith’s particular way of writing this love-letter is exceedingly clever; rather than tell us one story of the historic town, Blake tells five. Each of these is set in a different time period: the main narrative takes place in 2011, while the others are set in 1896, 1863, 1778 and 1692. Given that Newport’s fame far outweighs its small size, there are recurring families, locations and landmarks, most notably the maze at a Newport estate named – of course – Windermere.
Newport, the home of naval schools, the International Tennis Hall of Fame and of Kennedy’s and Eisenhower’s “summer White Houses,” proves to be a surprisingly fertile ground for over 300 years of storytelling. The town and its history allow Smith to gracefully approach subjects like religion (colonial Quakers flocked to the town), race (Newport featured prominently in the slave trade), and class (wealthy families have “summered” in Newport since just after the Civil War).
Rather than tell a single story or family story across generations in the style of Cunningham’s The Hours or a Ken Follett epic, The Maze at Windermere takes an approach similar to Geraldine Brooks’People of the Book, which tells stories of a number of different characters who all possess the same book over a number of generations and locations. Just as People of the Book boldly imagines the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah, The Maze at Windermere is brave in its choice of characters and their relationship with Newport.
The boldest character is also the book’s best, and that is a young Henry James. James narrates the novel’s 1863 section, and Smith, as he does in the other sections, adapts the language of the section to evoke not only the era but James himself. Smith isn’t fussy about it, rather providing his own spin on a well-documented figure than simply drudging up old quotes or writing in archaic vernacular, but he’s also diligent in telling a story that at once feels surprising and believable.
Smith’s prose is strong, but its most marked characteristic is how smoothly he alters it to reflect the era he is writing in. Just as he adapts James’ own voice to narrate his sections, Smith also believably writes as a young girl in 1692 and a tennis pro in 2011. He deftly avoids overusing period speak, instead consistently but subtly bending the language of each time period to his will.
Aside from James, the other leads are all interesting, though it is occasionally difficult to cheer any of them on. Smith takes on weighty topics ranging from anti-Semitism to sexism to homophobia, and though Smith realistically creates characters who engage with these topics as people of their eras would have, each character is at some point relatively unlikeable. For instance, the primary lead, 2011’s fading tennis professional Sandy Allison, initially seems like one of the thousands of oversexed, grumpy, sexist men who end up at the epicenter of literary novels. Sandy, however – spurred by Newport, by money, and by love – begins to show different shades as the novel progresses, as does each era’s main character if the reader is willing to stick with them. Rather than telling each story in one block, Smith alternates through them. This allows him to make thematic and narrative connections between the timelines, which while occasionally feel a bit on the nose are also almost universally satisfying. A few are even devastating.
While the intersections of plot bring a bit of melodrama into play, it is the thematic connections that justify Smith’s choice to divide The Maze at Windermere across the timeline. By choosing different characters, real and imagined, to visit over 300 years, Smith shows us that progress isn’t always linked to the passage of time, though sometimes it is. Those ages that were gilded for some left others in tatters.