Dedicated to the author's mother, whose recollections of an extraordinary girlhood provide setting, structure and the three characters who are virtually the entire cast, "Joanna" reduces most conventional coming-of-age novels to pabulum.
Each of the four sections is told in the voice of the narrator; Joanna speaking in the first segment as an anguished adolescent and in the last as a mature woman still reeling from the misery of her early life. In between, we hear from the mother who despised her and from the grandmother whose unstinting love almost succeeds in compensating for the inexplicable absence of every child's birthright.
"I think by the time I was twelve I had come to believe that only a miracle could make Mother love me." That miracle never happens, and we're well into the memoirs of Joanna's mother herself before a tenuous explanation is offered.
Until then, the reader is simply aghast. Unnaturally tall for her age and red-haired, Joanna is described as "plain" by her grandmother, but plain isn't a synonym for loathsome. "Plain" is a bland word, arousing sympathy at best and indifference at worst.
Hopelessly and desperately, Joanna adores the doll-like beauty with the blazing emerald eyes whose daughter she is, but Kitty will not even pronounce her own child's name.
Gradually, we discover that Kitty married and left her beloved home on the Channel Island of Jersey for the bleak chill of a small central Canadian city. The marriage was over almost at once, and Kitty returned pregnant and alone to find the family estate about to be auctioned in settlement of her father's gambling debts.
The late introduction of the gentle and still-bewildered man who married the fetching Kitty is a marvel of timing. Beguiled by Kitty's high-spirited antics and amusing chatter, the reader easily succumbs to Joanna's own delusion that her mother's unnatural behavior can be rationalized.
Although "Joanna" is fundamentally a novel of character, Lisa St. Aubin de Teran's lush natural imagery produces a kinesthetic response. Played out against the almost-tropical beauty and tranquillity of the island, the emotional drama is continually intensified.
Joanna's reminiscences are wrenchingly sad without sliding into self-pity; Kitty's brittle and vain, but the author surpasses herself when she writes in the voice of Florence, the indomitable grandmother. Of the three closely interrelated stories here, the woman who not only endured and protected her own aberrant daughter but simultaneously rescued the rejected Joanna has the most amazing tale to tell.
While Joanna's tone is contemporary and Kitty's flippant chapters capture the spirit of Noel Coward's social moths, Florence speaks in the cultivated accents and graceful rhythms of a woman born at the beginning of the century--an elegant, formal prose flawlessly tailored to the the pace and order of her era.
It's Florence who leads the bereaved remnant of a once-proud family into anonymous exile in an unfashionable London suburb; Florence who supports them on her tiny inheritance; Florence who must stay alive to function as a buffer between her dangerously volatile daughter and her endangered granddaughter.
Joanna elicits a shuddering empathy; Kitty rouses passionate hatred, but Florence is the once and future heroine, exceeding that limiting conception just as the novel exceeds others in its category.
Next: Carolyn See reviews "Strange Fits of Passion" by Anita Shreve.