Monday, May 11, 2015

Review: The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck

Although I have never been a particular fan of Nathaniel Hawthorne's writing, I recognize that he is a lynchpin of American literature. His works capture the particular mores of his time and the great changes fomenting all around. How better to understand where his inspiration came from than to plumb the depths of his personal life, even if only fictionally? Erika Robuck's newest novel, The House of Hawthorne, looks at Hawthorne and his wife Sophia intimately, drawing their life together in bold strokes.

Narrated in the first person by Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, the novel is framed by the last journey Hawthorne takes, old and ailing but determined to meet up with his long time friend Franklin Pierce. From Sophia's misgivings at saying goodbye to her beloved, ill husband, the novel jumps backwards in time to her life before she met Nathaniel. Sophia Peabody is a talented artist from a family which values art and education, even in its daughters, but practicing her art causes her to have debilitating headaches. After an extended sojourn in Cuba with her sister at the home of some family friends, a trip that was intended to restore Sophia to more robust health but instead exposed her first hand to the horrors of slavery and to a passion that could never be fulfilled, Sophia returns to her New England home and to her previous pursuits. Back at home, Sophia eventually meets a young Nathaniel Hawthorne and the two of them forge a soul deep connection. They endure a long courtship as Hawthorne tries to find the financial footing to marry.  Despite lifelong worries about money, the two of them do eventually marry, building a life together, facing hardship and loss, and weathering periods when the creative muse has seemingly abandoned Hawthorne or when Sophia's talent has sparked the pain of another blinding headache. Through it all, raising children, scrabbling for jobs, living a peripatetic life, and participating in the illustrious society of some of the leading lights of the day, the Hawthornes remain devoted to each other and passionately in love.

Robuck has drawn a portrait of two artists who are partners even as she shows the uncomfortable difficulties that beset them. She highlights their connection and friendship with other authors, early feminists, and politicians and details their desire to remain above the politics of the day, especially since several of Hawthorne's jobs depended on political appointments or favors. Sophia's periodic illnesses never kept her from her friends and socializing while the socially awkward Nathaniel preferred solitude or only the company of his "Dove." While Sophia longed to make a home and send down roots, Nathaniel was content to roam New England and the world. These many small differences ultimately didn't matter in this grand literary romance though. And a romance this is, although the over the top sweet nothings, intimate scenes, and constant declarations of love were just too much sometimes, melodramatic, and unsubtle, causing the reader many eye rolls rather than swoons of envy. As much as an insight into the world of Nathaniel Hawthorne as this was, it also shined a light on the sacrifices of Sophia as she forsook her own art for motherhood and in building a family and a home for her talented husband. In fact, it was Sophia's choices that were the more fascinating (and the more heartbreaking) as she eventually conformed to the time's ideals of womanhood in order to support her husband. Over all, the insight into a two artist relationship was interesting but it was the society around them and the way that attitudes were changing rather than Sophia and Nathaniel themselves that made for the most compelling reading.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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