Set in 1941 during the spring before Pearl Harbor when there was still some hope that the US would not get involved in the war in Europe, Clair de Lune is the story of a young woman named Allen Liles. Having grown up on a farm, Allen earned her masters degree so that she could teach college on the way to her ultimate dream of being a writer in New York City. Her debts and her mother's desire for her railroad her into accepting a job teaching English at a small community college in a Missouri city even as she keeps a tentative grasp on her dream of becoming a writer herself. And although teaching is not her dream, Allen is quite a dedicated teacher, interested in her subject matter and desirous of challenging her students. She is much younger than most of her colleagues and so her personal life is quiet, unremarkable, and lonely, even boring.
Then Allen, thanks to her mother's idea, decides to add a class for those students who are motivated and intelligent. And in this class she discovers two students, George and Toby, with whom she becomes friendly, inviting them back to her apartment for impromptu literary salons of a sort. Because they are so close in age, the three of them quickly lose their prescribed roles of students and teacher. This is problematic both ethically and socially and could cost Allen her job. But none of this occurs to her as she enjoys an almost carefree friendship with the two young men, roaming the streets of the city with them after dark, exporing their town, drinking and playing about, until word gets out about her inappropriate friendship. And then Allen must decide what it is she really wants out of her life.
Allen as a character is both sad and admirable. She knows that the constrained life of women in the early 1940's, marriage and motherhood, is not her goal even though this isolates her from her peers and co-workers. Her only young female colleague, Maxine, lives out the engagement and marriage role concurrently with Allen's innocent cavorting and Allen watches clinically, knowing that Maxine's choices won't be hers. But the courage to strike out counter to society's expectations remains cloaked throughout most of the narrative.
As America slowly wakes from its pre-war innocence, so too does Allen Liles. While the narrative itself is fairly quiet, mirroring Allen's life, it builds a narrative tension that is both expected and unavoidable but right and necessary to Allen's becoming her true self. The writing is lovely and poetic and while Allen is the only character fully developed, this is pitch perfect reflecting her solitary life and the superficial way that she never really fully knows those around her, colleague, acquaintances, and even George and Toby. Carleton has written a thoughtful and deep examination of what it means to settle and the courage it takes to break free of the obligations and expectations that led to the settling in the first place. This novel depicts its time beautifully but it makes us stop and reflect on these same questions now.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.