“Ivo’s mother kept a perfect house, a house among the trees.” So begins “everyone’s favorite, iconic, never-to-be-rivaled storybook, ‘Colorquake,’ ” written by beloved children’s book author Mort Lear, in whose wake Julia Glass’ own book unfolds.
Much of the novel also takes place in a house among the trees, itself an enchanted sort of place that reminds one visitor of “a cottage drawn by Beatrix Potter” and makes another “feel as if she’s tumbled into a fairy tale.”
It is, in fact, an enchanted sort of gathering that forms the center of the book, which revolves around the working out of Lear’s will after his untimely death from a fall.
Tomasina, known as Tommy, 30 years his junior and his live-in assistant for decades, has inherited virtually everything — including the considerable task of managing his legacy. Immediately and unexpectedly, this means hosting British actor Nicholas Greene, hot off an Oscar-winning role, who’s set to play Lear in a film and soon arrives to learn all he can about the man from Tommy.
Also in the mix are Merry, curator of a museum of children’s literature, jilted out of the artwork Lear promised her, and Tommy’s hapless younger brother Dani, once the unwitting model for Ivo, boy hero of the book that catapulted Lear to stardom.
Lear’s life and work hold some significance for each of these characters, so as they come together, his story ravels and unravels with theirs: the lost parents, the estranged siblings, the failed marriages and unhappy loves — in particular, Lear’s tempestuous eight-year affair with a younger man. Most saliently, the film Greene is making, and his research for it, untangles the tale of a boyhood trauma wound up with Lear’s earliest forays into art and sexuality.
Woven into all of this is, of course, “Colorquake,” the story of a boy artist confined (kindly) to a cellar, “his to decorate however he pleased” — until an earthquake renders the world above black and white. Ivo magically returns color to the world, in the most striking image standing “with his arms stretched out to either side, and from every direction, birds, butterflies, and insects alight on his body as if he were a tree, while squirrels and moles convene at his feet.”
When, late in the book, Merry cites Bellini’s painting of St. Francis, striking “a beatific pose, arms spread, palms out, eyes toward the ceiling … like the painter is pointing everywhere at once, telling you, God created this and this and, dude, can you believe it, even this!” the resonance is a little odd, a little sad. Because, for all that happens in the book’s present — Greene makes his movie, Tommy moves on, Dani succeeds, Merry makes her museum work — what’s most compelling is what’s come before, the creative wonder that is Lear’s gift, and that remains a mystery.
Ellen Akins is a writer and a teacher of writing in Wisconsin.
A House Among the Trees
By: Julia Glass.
Publisher: Pantheon, 352 pages, $27.95.