Jane Hamilton, best known for her first and second novels, “The Book of Ruth” and “The Map of the World,” has produced a powerful coming-of-age story in her seventh, “The Excellent Lombards.” Less sensational than her previous works, the novel involves no spousal abuse, murder, accidental death, accusations of child molestation, adultery or peculiar marital arrangements, and yet the level of emotion and fraughtness of domestic relations are intense. Her penetration into the hearts of her characters is as profound, perhaps more so, than ever before.
The novel is set chiefly on a 400-acre farm in Wisconsin and is told in the first person by Mary Frances “Francie” Lombard, looking back on her life from its early years to the age of 16. The farm is a diverse one, consisting of an extensive apple orchard, hayfields, sheep pastures, woods, marshland, three barns and three houses. It is owned in complicated ways by Francie’s capable and detail-oriented father, Jim; his visionary, less capable cousin, Sherwood, and by a more distant relation, Aunt May Hill, a stern, rough-hewed woman of 60, a fearsome presence, but a person whose skill at fixing machinery is essential to the entire operation.
Hamilton embeds the story in the material world of haying, apple harvesting, cider making and the other tasks and traditions that make up the meaning of life for Francie. Still, if her childhood has been formed and enriched by involvement in the farm, it has also been made uneasy by the fear that the place will be lost to her thanks to fast encroaching suburban development and the vagaries of splintering inheritance, the latter worsened by acrimony between Sherwood and Francie’s father.
When Aunt May’s nephew appears on the scene, it raises the prospect of yet another claimant and an additional threat to the unity of the owners. Finally, there is a more intimate obstacle to Francie’s future on the farm: her mother’s resentment of the agricultural life she married into and aspirations for her daughter to have broader opportunities.
Hamilton shows the progression of Francie’s understanding from childhood to adolescent as she absorbs the precarious situation, internalizing what she perceives as perils, some very wrongheaded, but all the more believable because of it. We witness the girl feeling, as children do, that responsibility lies somehow with herself, a state of mind that Hamilton conveys in everyday incidents and more unfortunate events, each adding to the novel’s deep sense of place.
This is a very fine novel: Its people, their individual predicaments and their relationships with one another and with the land stay with the reader long after that last page has been turned.
Katherine A. Powers reviews widely and is the editor of “Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963.”
The Excellent Lombards
By: Jane Hamilton.
Publisher: Grand Central, 273 pages, $26.