Fiction by James Friel
Tupelo Press, May 2012
Paperback: 252pp; $16.95
Review by Olive Mullet
The “Little Man” and the “Fat Princess,” as children in the spring of 1880, trail a red balloon—a “swollen heart”—across Washington Square. And thus begins James Friel’s The Posthumous Affair, a beautifully written and unique, daring love story. Even the end is a risky stand on the part of the author.
The mother of ten-year-old Daniel takes him to meet Grace Cooper Glass in an elegant house on Washington Square, occupied not only by the large nine-year-old girl but by her three reclusive maiden aunts. The two children couldn’t have been more different, he small for his age and beautifully dressed in “high hat, a topper of soft gray felt . . . his waistcoat the blue of his extraordinary eyes.” And she is “already woman-sized” and encased in a corset, her ginger hair pulled tight against her scalp and her dress an orange gown with many underskirts. According to her aunts, “she was too full bodied. Freakishly huge, she must be trimmed and tamed.” But when Daniel’s balloon enters Grace’s hands, for the first time she feels light, as though floating like the balloon does, right up into the sky.
In spite of their differences, they fit into each other perfectly, he hardly reaching her shoulder. “They will be the most important person in each other’s lives. They will anchor one another . . .” Yet Daniel from the start finds: “She was too heavy. . . . She was too much for him to bear. This might always be just so.”
Rebellion is in Grace’s background in this quirky fairy tale: Grace’s mother married a large red-haired Irishman, Grace’s father, only to starve to death with him in a Utopia that no longer existed. On the day he meets Grace, Daniel loses his mother, strangled by the red scarf Grace’s aunts have given her. In time, Daniel’s formerly brutal father, as Grace’s financial advisor, tells her of her immense wealth. This frees her to do whatever she wants, and so she goes traveling, never to return to America.
The novel traces Daniel’s and Grace’s brief reunions, cut short by Daniel’s admission that he cannot love her. Because of his cruelty, Grace wants “to be mind alone.” Corset-less, “she was a voluptuous ‘O’ . . . a globe again . . . a world, a planet. She was no man’s moon. She was sufficient unto herself. It must always be just so.” She collects people for their varied information, not great people but intellectuals on the fringe, like Johannes Zorn Nils, who introduces her to Adam’s three wives:
She was intent on knowing all Nils had to tell her. If she could have opened his head, she would have drunk his brain like soup and never been quite sated. The image, as it came to her, appalled and excited her. It was the kind of thought Lilith might have had.
Venice, so different from New York, is the most successful of Grace’s and Daniel’s reunions, yet suggestive of their differences:
They had met first as children in a dream-bright New York, a city on the cusp of new maturity, a city intent on straight lines, a rigid geography, mappable, knowable and cognizant of law. Here, they were in another island city, a soft irregular city, dismissive of straight lines and certain ways, dizzyingly circular. Here space was trimmed but went untamed. It was jumbled and crosshatched. Here all was languorously mortal, in love with its own dying.
Grace moves from reading to writing novels—successfully. With Daniel also writing novels, eventually revelations about each other’s work show the borrowing from life and insights about writing itself:
This, for each of them, is how they make use of life. They unpick and rearrange it. From its jumble, its dense cross-hatchings, they might take one line, and follow that. They will pretend not to know where the line is leading, but the writer always knows. It leads to the reader. The line must loop about the reader, and the reader who accepts the bond becomes a happy prisoner.
The novel’s controlled structure is evident, with the above foreshadowing the end’s risky appeal. And of the would-be lovers: “They must part. Otherwise, there will be no more story. An acceptance now would end the tale. A refusal continues it. This is the account, after all, of a posthumous affair.”
The characters appear real. Yet the book approaches the allegorical, the physical paralleling, the mental in writing, and their approaches to love. There is a surprise at the end—the gothic dark end, in the House of Death, which Daniel must web his way through to find out the truth about Grace Cooper Glass.
This book, a perfect gem where everything fits, is enthralling, poignant, and brimming with meaning.