Gregory Blake Smith’s exquisite novel “The Maze at Windermere” interweaves five stories set in four centuries against the backdrop of Newport, R.I. Neither the book’s expansive scope nor its historical breadth overwhelm the remarkably strong narrative voices that convey the intimacy and immediacy of the life within these pages.
At the center of Smith’s complex maze lies a 21st-century romance. Sandy, an agreeable, beautiful tennis pro, moves with ease among Newport socialites and blithely in and out of affairs. Oblivious when it comes to parsing emotions, he keeps his life uncomplicated until he’s pulled into the orb of Alice Du Pont, heiress to the magnificent Windermere Estate with its famous maze.
The thing is, Sandy, a womanizer but not a cad, has had an affair with Alice’s sister-in-law and her best friend, assignations that surely will haunt him. In the meantime, his fascination with, and tender feelings toward, the vulnerable but fierce Alice, who has cerebral palsy, confuse him. She pursues him; he likes to hang out with her. Will their relationship come to love or treachery?
Any curiosity we have about the outcome of this pairing will have to wait as our deft writer gracefully steps back in time, adding intricate layers of moral and social dilemmas, ambiguities and questions of class, race and desire.
The boyishly handsome, charmingly risqué Franklin knows that his days as the “lapdog” of Gilded Age matrons are numbered. His survival depends on finding a “Dollar Princess” to marry, even though it means hiding his true nature from society.
In the shadow of the Civil War, 20-year-old Henry James idles at hotel piazzas, noting “ideas for characters, situations, complexities” — to serve his stories. When he befriends the beautiful, outspoken, guileless Miss Taylor — his Daisy Miller? — he discovers that his detachment in the name of art bears a heavy cost.
The delusional predator Maj. Ballard, bivouacked in 1778 Newport, is so obsessed with seducing the beautiful teenage daughter of a Jewish merchant — shouldn’t a man of his class have all he desires? — that he becomes lost in a labyrinth of madness.
In a gentler time, Prudence, an orphaned Quaker girl left to care for her sister and the family household, including a slave called Ashes, shows the mature fortitude to refuse a marriage of convenience and the spiritual depth to question the morality of slavery.
The stories connect with common markers — the Jewish cemetery, the library, the little houses where Quakers once lived — and overlapping details.
Alice reads “Daisy Miller,” calling Sandy Mr. Winterbourne. Franklin courts an affable widow who built with her husband Windermere’s original maze.
Echoing across the chapters are the vicissitudes of human nature, the dead ends, the wrong turns, the missed cues and the disparities between our inner and outer selves.
Smith’s vibrant mix of beautiful writing, clarity of voices, flow of history and storytelling, and philosophical reflections had me slowing my pace to stretch out its pleasures.
Elfrieda Abbe is a freelance critic who last reviewed “In the Distance” for these pages. She lives in Wisconsin.
The Maze at Windermere
By: Gregory Blake Smith.
Publisher: Viking, 339 pages, $27.
Events: 1 p.m. today, Subtext Books, 6 W. 5th St., St. Paul; 7 p.m. Feb. 12, Literature Lovers Night Out, Excelsior Bay Bookstore, Excelsior, $11; 7 p.m. Feb. 13, Literature Lovers Night Out, Valley Booksellers, Stillwater, $11.