A House Among the Trees

9781101870372_p0_v1_s192x300 If you are a fan of children’s literature, you will recognize author’s names and references in Julia Glass’s A House Among the Trees. After I was only a few chapters into the story, I started to connect the children’s book author and illustrator in the novel to Maurice Sendak. Maybe it was his story of a mischievous boy who transforms a bland world into a colorful jungle in his prize winning book.

When I mentioned my notion to a good friend who had read the book and its reviews, she assured me I was not alone in my connection. Sendak died in 2012 at 83 years old, had reinvented himself in television and in set design for ballet and opera, and had capitalized on shirts and toys based on his books, just as Glass’s author had.  Glass’s author, however,  accidentally falls out of a tree to his death in his fifties.

In an interview, Glass admitted her inspiration for the book came from a “New York Times article about the estate of children’s book icon Maurice Sendak, which he had left in the hands of his longtime caretaker, leaving a stunned Philadelphia museum out of the loop…{but}It is not a novel about Maurice Sendak…It would be insulting to Sendak to say that. Really, that story about the assistant, that’s the only thing. . . . I worry a little bit that people will think that I’m writing about Maurice Sendak, but I’m not.”

Where_The_Wild_Things_Are_(book)_cover Nevertheless, other commonalities revealed themselves as I continued, and I stopped reading long enough to find my old signed copy of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and remember when I had met him.

The struggle over the collected works, drawings, manuscripts, and memorabilia of famous children’s author Mort Lear, drives the action in A House Among the Trees. The author’s work has been housed in a small New York museum, with the museum’s expectation it would remain there as the centerpiece for a new building.  When he dies suddenly, his will surprisingly reveals he has changed his bequest and named Tomasina, his faithful amanuensis and caretaker, as his heir, directing her to sell everything to establish a home for runaway boys. In addition, he has been corresponding with a young Oscar winning actor who will play him in a planned biopic.

Mort’s strange relationship with Tomasina is the central focus of the story.   Tomasina first met the children’s book author in a Manhattan playground when she was twelve, as he was observing and sketching her younger brother’s antics – sketches for the book that would make him a success.  After she graduates from college, she meets him again, and he offers her the job as his assistant. For thirty years, she lives in his Connecticut house, acting as his confidante and manager of his daily life.   As she tries to honor Mort’s last wishes, she is caught in the lives of Meredith, the lonely museum curator, and Nicholas Greene, the handsome British actor cast to play Mort in a movie. When Nicholas arrives for a visit, new revelations about Mort’s past change Tomasina’s perception and threaten to undermine how he will be remembered.

At first, the suspense of wondering if Mort’s secret life and childhood trauma would be revealed in the film, or whether his precious belongings would be scattered or preserved, kept me reading, but the anticipation soon dissipated as I realized it did not matter.  The reader expects the three main characters will all come together to resolve the issue of Mort’s legacy, as they do – eventually.

Although Mort dies in the first few pages, the novel explores his life through those affected by his untimely death – his lonely childhood and his escape into fantasy to avoid his grim surroundings,  the loss of his partner to AIDS, his yearning for, yet fear of being alone.   Each supporting character has a backstory of loneliness and insecurity – all with some commonality with Mort in how they struggle through their lives to gain success.

Unlike many books I’ve read, Glass’s story was more about the characters than the plot, as she examines childhood traumas, deprivations, even opportunities, influencing the adults they became.  It was easy, sometimes helpful,  to stop reading and pick it up again later, hoping Nicholas, Meredith, and Tomasina will finally find happiness.  Thankfully, they do, but Glass is careful to keep her resolutions realistic; I had hoped for a more romantic ending for each – in keeping with the fantasy of most children’s stories happily-ever-after – but life is not like that, after all.  And despite Mort’s attempt to continue to control his life story after he is dead, the decisions fall to those still alive to manage as they see best – isn’t that always the way?




The Widower’sTale

The names Percy Darling and Sarah Straight could be from a macabre reinvention of  Peter Pan. Instead they predictably add little weight to Julia Glass’s The Widower’s Tale.

Harvard's Widener Library

This was a “hot pick”  from my library, which meant I had to read it within a week –usually no challenge for me, but 70 year-old Percy’s somnabulant life as a retired college librarian, oblique references to the mysterious death of his young wife (Poppy), and the soft-peddling of his immediate family’s daily copings – worked better than a sleeping pill.

As I sloughed through, clearly something was about to happen –eventually.  Would it happen within the week allotted?

Aside from the predictable, that is, Percy finds new love – the subplots struggle to spice up the action with too much detail and unrealistic dialogue.  Glass has her characters not only think aloud about the minutia of their lives, but also about each others – the internal, eternal gossip of a family saga.

Stories overlap and all somehow relate to good old Percy:   Ira, the gay pre-school teacher who works in Percy’s converted barn/school; Clover, the forty-something daughter who has yet to grow up; her sister, Truthful – better known as Dr. Trudy of the women’s clinic – whose tolerance does not extend to her sister.

But the characters that kept me reading, despite the temptation to stop, were Robert, the “perfect” grandson, whose Harvard roomie is becoming the new dangerous environmental vigilante; and Celestino, the illegal Guatemalan landscaper, with potential for more in his life.

The story and the characters wake up at the end – literally in a blaze – but it was too long in coming.   Percy notes and I agree …

“I am a man of too many words…”

Glass polishes off the story with lessons learned and life goes on to meet new challenges.   For me, the challenge was to finish…and wonder why it was a hot pick.

But the first line is a keeper –

“Why, thank you, I’m getting in shape to die.”