Hearing Echoes of the Past

By Robin Jacobson.

A perennial source of fascination to physicists, philosophers, and poets is the nature of time. Does time progress along a straight line? Perhaps it ripples outward, like the rings on a tree trunk? Or maybe time is tiered, like an archaeological dig? The Maze at Windermere (2018), by Gregory Blake Smith, takes the archaeological view. In this enchanting novel, the present is but a thin layer atop a rich past.
Praised as “staggeringly brilliant” by The Washington Post’s Book World editor and selected for the Post’s ten “Best Books of 2018,” Windermere is set in Newport, Rhode Island, home to an early American Jewish community and the oldest synagogue in North America. The novel interweaves five stories that take place in 2011, 1896, 1863, 1778, and 1692.

Love and Deception

Windermere’s five stories cleverly echo each other; characters in different time periods seek love, self-fulfillment, or financial security while struggling against social mores. The novel begins in 2011 with a drunken wager that propels a handsome but directionless tennis pro, Sandy, into the orbit of Newport’s moneyed elite, including the fabulously wealthy Alice du Pont. Alice, a fiercely intelligent young woman who suffers from cerebral palsy, is the owner of Windermere, one of Newport’s palatial mansions.

Entranced with Newport history, Alice roams the seaside town by night, visiting the Jewish cemetery, peering at the old Quaker houses, and imagining the lives of long-dead residents. One foggy night, she cajoles Sandy into joining her, telling him the “ghosts are walking.” Although Sandy falls easily and unthinkingly into love affairs, he hesitates before responding to Alice’s advances, initially repelled by her disability. Does Alice become more attractive to him as he knows her better or is her fortune the main attraction?

If Sandy is a fortune hunter, he is at least less cynical than Franklin, the protagonist in the 1896 story. Franklin, a witty, charming man who has made a career of amusing Newport society doyennes, plots to marry a wealthy young widow in order to gain both financial security and a cover for his secret gay life. In the 1863 story, Henry James (an actual historical character) turns down a marriage proposal, realizing that what he wants most is to observe life and capture it in his novels.

The most appealing character is Prudence Selwyn, an earnest teenage Quaker girl who narrates the 1692 story. When she is suddenly orphaned, Prudy, at first hesitatingly and then with increasing confidence, begins to forge a life for herself and her young sister and their African slave. Her growing unease with the contradiction between Quaker beliefs in equality and the institution of slavery foreshadows the Quakers’ later repudiation of slavery.

Jewish Newport

Although characters in multiple Windermere stories find themselves drawn to Jewish landmarks (the Jewish cemetery, the synagogue), only one story has Jewish characters. In the 1778 story, Major Ballard, a British officer stationed in Newport during the Revolutionary War, plots to seduce the daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant, Isaac Da Silva. Da Silva is a Portuguese Jew whose family lived for centuries as conversos, outwardly Christian but secretly practicing Judaism. When Ballard tries to convince Da Silva that his designs on Da Silva’s daughter are honorable and suggests that the aristocratic Ballard family would begrudgingly accept Ballard’s marriage to a Jew if she converted, Da Silva is outraged. He declares that the Da Silva family did not withstand centuries of persecution only to have its descendants relinquish Judaism. Rather, “he was a Jew and those who were his were Jews. And any who did not like it could be damned!”