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Never judge a book by its cover
on September 25, 2008
The Spirit of the Place makes two books in a row that have reminded me why I should never judge a book by its cover. The cover of this book left me thinking 'meh' but the novel itself knocked my socks off.
Shem's prose is mesmerizing and beautiful. This is a book to be savored. The plot steadily unfolds versus rushing forth. And yet, it held my attention from start to finish.
The most outstanding aspect of this novel, for me, was the emotional depth that Shem conveyed in his characters. Especially in Orville and Miranda, but also in secondary characters such as the old town physician Bill Starbuck, Miranda's sweet six year-old son Cray and Orville's passionate, impulsive pre-teen niece Amy. Even characters who made brief appearances, such as the flighty, ethereal Celestina Polo, and Starbuck's dutiful wife Babette were vivid to the reader through Orville's narration.
Orville was a man full of turmoil. His love life. His career. His relationship with his deceased mother. All his life he ran away instead of staying. Because of the terms of his mother's will, he is forced to stay. In Columbia, that is.
The town of Columbia is a character in and of itself. A town so unbelievably self-destructive that it borders on hilarious. Orville stayed under duress. Thanks to his mother's will, he stood to gain almost a million dollars by staying for at least one year and thirteen months. Could he learn to love, or at least accept his hometown. Would he?
Then there was his relationships with women. I wouldn't say I didn't like Celestina Polo, but I thought she was wrong for Orville. Miranda, on the other hand, I not only adored but completely sympathized with. It was difficult to watch Miranda and Orville's relationship deteriorate. Their fears, their emotions seemed so incredibly real. It was what most of us have felt at one time when we wanted something so badly, but were so afraid we couldn't have it that our fears became a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy.
Finally, there was Orville's relationship with his mother, Selma. Selma cared enough about her son to leave a boxful of letters to be sent to her son at specified times after her death. Yet, the letters were often harsh and critical and full of unforgiveness and grudges held by a mother against her only son.
Orville's struggle to come to terms with Selma, Miranda, and the sad little town of Columbia - and they are all intertwined - is the driving force of this story. There are several interesting subplots artfully woven in, such as the fight to save an historic Columbian hotel, Orville's relationship with the man who tormented and bullied him as a child, and Cray, Miranda's son who falls for Orville in much the same was his mother does: tentative love mixed with self-protective fear.
Shem's fascinating account of Orville's cathartic one year and thirteen days in Columbia is a perfect example of how a return to our hometown can force us to face the past.