Border Lord

Damask Rose

Dangerous Gifts

Ladies of the Lake
by Haywood Smith
(St. Martins, $24.99, PG) ISBN 978-0-312-31695-2
I read Ladies of the Lake while sweating on the elliptical machine; I read it while peddling away on the stationary bike; I read it while eating breakfast; I read it while cooking dinner. In short, I couldn’t put it down. I think my fascination with the story had as much to do with its centerpiece: the relationship between four middle aged sisters. As a middle aged (well, that’s being slightly generous) only child, I find sibling relationships terra incognita. Smith’s portrayal of the interactions of Dahlia, Iris, Violet and Rose – all named for flowers according to family tradition – made me both glad and sad that I never had a sister.

The eldest sister, Dahlia Cooper, narrates the story. Born in the 1950s in Atlanta, the sisters enjoyed happy childhoods. Perhaps their happiest times were the summers spend at the family place on Lake Clare.  Hilltop Lodge had been built by their great grandfather in 1919 and had been inherited by their grandmother, Cissy.  (Her given name was Narcissus which may explain her eccentricities; apparently, she spent her life living up to her namesake.)  In the first scene in the book, Cissy is portrayed as shooting at her visiting granddaughters, under the misapprehension that they were rapists.

Two years later, the sisters are informed that Cissy has died.  She has left them Hilltop Lodge and its very, very valuable acreage.  But there is a catch.  The four have to spend ninety days together at the Lodge.  All four sisters could use the money, but Dahlia’s needs are particularly pressing.  Two years earlier, her husband had absconded with his company’s money, the cash from a refinance of the family home, his secretary, and their teenage son.  Since that time, Dahlia has struggled to keep her house and her head above water.  But the wolf is at the door and she is in danger of losing everything.  So it is crucial that all four sisters “just get along.”

This will not be easy.   Dahlia and her next oldest sister Iris have never gotten along, to put it mildly.  Typical sibling rivalry was intensified by Iris’  perhaps understandable jealousy of her elder sister.  Dahlia had early on showed great talent as a dancer, a talent which made her the favorite of Cissy.  The family had sacrificed to make sure that Dahlia had her chance and she made the most of it.  She had become a famous prima ballerina and married well.  If Iris, now a successful CPA, takes some pleasure in her older sister’s current difficulties, her intense dislike borders on pathology.

Much of Ladies of the Lake recounts the interaction of the four sisters who find themselves in intimate contact for the first time since their childhood.  Alliance formed decades ago still prevail: Dahlia and Violet on one side, Iris and Rose on the other. There are moments of comity and of conflict. I cannot speak to the accuracy of the portrayal of the sisters’ relationship but I found it compelling.  Despite their differences, the four share a connection and a history.  There are moments of warmth and cooperation as they clear out nearly a century’s worth of memories from the lodge.  There is one particular episode of dealing with the detritus of the past that had me laughing out loud.

Even though she is dead, Cissy is a key character is the story.  To call her an eccentric is to understate the case.  She lived life on her own terms, gallivanting around the world, having love affairs, leaving her daughter Rose behind, insisting on staying at the Lodge long after she probably should not have, and clearly being larger than life.  That she, from the grave, attempts to convince her granddaughters of the importance of family ties seems somewhat paradoxical, belied by her own behavior.

Since Dahlia tells the story, we know most about her thoughts and feelings.  In addition to her financial problems, she has health issues including severe allergies which are apparently based on the author’s own experiences.  She also has a lovely summer romance with a neighbor on the lake, Clete Slocum. The summer with her sisters requires her to rethink her own priorities and her own goals.

Haywood Smith has an evocative and appealing writing style.  She portrays the vicissitudes and rewards of middle age with great sympathy.  Ladies of the Lake is about the importance of relationships, of a shared past, of finding wisdom and happiness. I enjoyed it immensely.

NB:  I should note that I had some problems with the chronology and with some of the dating in the book.  If, as indicated, it is set in “the present,” then the timeline is problematic.  If, as is mentioned at one point, Cissy was gallivanting in Paris in 1922, then she would have been well over 100 at the time of her death.  I couldn’t figure out if Dahlia was 50 as was indicated in one place or 60 as was suggested elsewhere.   I know; this is nitpicking. But I tend to notice these things. 

--Jean Mason

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