Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review: Claire de Lune by Jetta Carleton

Claire de Lune

By Jetta Carleton

Published by Harper Perennial

Release Date: March 2012

304 pages

 ISBN13: 9780062089199

Jetta Carleton (1913-1999) the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Moonflower Vine, and her husband ran a small publishing house, The Lightning Tree. Up until recently, only one of her novels was published. Claire de Lune, a novel she'd been working on for many years, had been considered lost by her family--swept away in a tornado. When The Moonflower Vine was reissued, a small Colorado newspaper interviewed one of her friends, who'd read Carleton's unfinished manuscript. According to her, Carleton had been working on Claire de Lune over the entirety of their twenty year friendship.

"Innocence, of course, can lead to error, and error lead to the expulsion from Eden. Or so it is generally considered, although as far as we are told, it was the end neither of Eden nor of the garden. It was the end only of the sojourn there of its first inhabitants. Evicted for the error of their ways, they were forbidden to return...But there are those who enter, on sufferance of the angel, and choose not to know that after a short, blissful time, they too will be driven out."

Allen Liles is a young, single teacher at a local junior college in a small Missouri town. Longing for the kind of life offered through her poetry and books seems to be what sets at the heart of Claire de Lune. Other people are living. Other people are planning their future. Other people are doing what Allen isn't. Teaching is the career that she gets into because it's what her mother did, and her mother's mother, and so on. What Allen wants is some excitement, a little intrigue, something more than lesson plans and dodging the attention of an older, boring professor. But how will this longing threaten her career and future? When Allen begins a discussion group on the Modern American Novel after school hours, she becomes friends with her students, in particular, two young men. What starts out as innocent conversations over novels and music turns into dancing and then something more with one of the men. What follows is a scandal that threatens her position at the school and puts into question what it is that Allen Liles wants for herself.

In a letter to her agent in 1972, Jetta Carleton wrote:

"I've been obsessed lately by the sudden realization that a good part of my youth--between 16, say, and 28--was lived most joyously after dark...My goodness, what a lot of larking about we used to do in the middle of the night!"

The opening chapter of Claire de Lune draws on this, as the author writes that although Allen Liles is a fictional character, much the story is Carleton's, "altered to fit."

As someone who lived in a small town (about 10,000 people), hanging out after sundown in dirt roads and unchaperoned ranches and farms seems to be all we did. The point was to escape the watchful eyes of parents and gossiping biddies with nothing better to do. There were no bookstores in my hometown, no IHOPs where we could drink coffee and wax poetic on The Meaning of Life. Starbucks didn't and STILL doesn't exist there. There's a Pizza Hut that closes at 10, a Whataburger where the senior citizens gather, and an AutoZone parking lot where the car fanatics compare rides. That's it.

Some of us were more adventurous and would go clubbing in Mexico, but for the rest of us, whose parents still held the specter of the Mark Kilroy murder, we had to make do with small town excitement, and the little it had to offer. But those balmy nights hanging out at the local dam, with palm trees swaying in the breeze, are still one of the best times of my life. Underage drinking (I hope my kids aren't reading this!) and talking about what we'd do when we finally got out of "this damned town" comprised much of our imaginative life.

"When we are young, particularly when young and lonely, we imagine a future and dwell in it, as later we dwell in a past we also have imagined. So, on those fall nights, she dreamed herself forward into Italy as she knew it from the English poets, and the Paris of Hemingway, and the New York City of Katherine Anne Porter. It was a rich, and improbably future, made up of other people's pasts. "

Who among us hasn't sought out some measure of escape through literature, music, or love? And when do we stop living vicariously through someone else's experiences (I'm reminded of Tom Wingfield in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie) and start to live on our own terms, no matter the consequences? When is the moment when we decide that someone else's choices for us aren't enough?

Carleton's Claire de Lune is a poignant novel that explores the limited choices that young women had in the early 1940s, and the potential for social ostracism that lurked about in every corner. It's about loneliness and longing, and the tenderness that our older counterparts have for our more innocent, naive selves.

*This review originally appeared on LitStack.