A line from Edgar Allan Poe's poem, ''To a Lost Love,'' provides the title for Elisabeth Stevens' elegiac, provocative, and sexy new novel of the 1950's. A Green Isle in the Sea, Love returns to that calm, politically and sexually conservative era of Post World War II optimism before the angry years of racial violence and feminist protest that followed.
Stevens, whose sensual and plain-spoken collection of love poems, Sirens' Songs, was named one of the 100 best indie books of 2011 by Kirkus, depicts Amy, a naive, 22-year-old heroine who comes to New York City from a small upstate town to prove that she can be a great painter.
Amy paints, but she also falls in love with Charlie, a conventional businessman who believes in ''progress.'' Soon, she sees that the successful artists in the city are men, and that unmarried women such Charlie's long-widowed mother, who runs the family insurance agency, or her recently-widowed mother, who wants Amy to come home, have unfulfilled lives.
Even Duncan, Charlie's brilliant, free-living half-brother, a world traveler, risks disappointment when he falls in love with Blanche, ''the most beautiful girl in New York.'' In a troubling world which in some ways resembles that of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, Amy resists mounting depression and confusion and Charlie's pressure to ''do the right thing'' and get married. She instead keeps working on a strange, unstylish painting of a chimera, which she can't seem to finish.
The writer-artist-critic Elisabeth Goss Stevens was born in Rome, NY and now lives and works in Sarasota, FL. She is the author of fifteen books of fiction, poetry and drama, and she also writes film, drama, art and book reviews for newspapers, magazines and the Sarasota internet radio station Radio SRQ.com.
Stevens (Household Words, 2014, etc.) shines light on a young woman’s struggles to break from societal expectations.
Twenty-two-year-old Amy Morse is not going to follow in her father’s footsteps. A professor at “The Hill,” Dad passed away before fulfilling his life’s ambition of publishing an analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems. Amy has her heart set on art school in the Big Apple, after which she hopes to become an established painter. To do so, she must first break free of the suffocating choke hold her mother exerts and conventional expectations that push her toward the path of marriage and motherhood.
Leaving the provincial life behind, not surprisingly, Amy finds that life in New York City can be deeply isolating. Charlie Campbell, a family acquaintance and eligible bachelor, just might be the dose of cheer that Amy needs. Unfortunately, love gets in the way, and Amy’s careful plans may be derailed. The vice president of the family business, Campbell Insurance, Charlie introduces Amy to his extended blue-blood family, including his mother, Emma Campbell, and stepbrother, Duncan, whose wild spirit and spontaneity stand out in sharp contrast to Charlie’s own. Life in New York City proves to be an education in more ways than one, and Amy must eventually decide whether to follow her heart or her mind.
Set against the backdrop of the women’s rights movement, Amy’s ambivalence about her life feels earned but sometimes overly anguished. Her internal struggles are eloquently described, yet the narrative could have used a focus on backdrop as well. Apart from a very occasional mention of a ’50s and’60s period setting, it’s difficult to place the story in its historical context. Extended comparisons between Amy’s struggles and other women’s situations (such as Charlie’s secretary, for example) seem a little forced. Nevertheless, this is a fluidly written and engaging exploration of one young woman’s angst.
A soulful novel that falls just short of its own grand ambitions.