Is a Comeuppance Coming?
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The year is 2011 and Elizabeth is a candidate for a doctoral degree at Columbia University. Her dissertation is called “Inadvertent Feminists: Three Mid-century Popular Female Novelists Who Advanced the Cause of Women.” All three writers had been dismissed by critics as “providers of light entertainment for ladies.” Elizabeth felt instead that their work had a “significant, empowering impact on the lives of at least some of the women who read them.”
Two of the three novelists agreed to be interviewed by Elizabeth, but the third and most important of the three authors, Anne Taussig Weil, had declined repeatedly. Anne’s blockbuster novel was called, The Vengeance of Catherine Clark. It had been a hit worldwide, an off-Broadway play, and a successful Hollywood film. Elizabeth tells us, “The scene in which Catherine Clark saws her marriage bed in half continues to inspire and delight angry young women today.”
Without access to Ann, Elizabeth gathers all she can from alternate sources, but she has just learned from her advisor that this is not enough. Without fresh information about Anne, Elizabeth’s dissertation cannot yet be submitted.
This is a huge problem for Elizabeth, but it is not her only one. She is also deeply in debt thanks to a B.S, a Master’s, and four years as a Ph.D. candidate. Beyond that, the man whose life and apartment she has shared for the last two years has just announced he has fallen in love with someone else, so she must move out.
The first page of the novel has Elizabeth scanning housing ads where she comes upon a very interesting one:
“Private room and bath with river view in pre-war doorman Greenwich Village Building. Kitchen privileges. Available now. Advantageous terms for quiet female willing to read aloud to purblind landlady one hour a day. Reply with brief work/educational details to ATW1301922@juno.com. Must read well.”
Immediately, Elizabeth knows more than the ad tells. She recognizes the email address from her attempts to get in touch with Anne! The ATW in the email address are Anne’s initials. The 1301922 is Anne’s birthdate.
In her graduate studies Elizabeth went by her full name Elizabeth Miller. To apply for the room rental/job with Anne, she disguised her identity by becoming “Beth” and was grateful that her last name was so common as to be forgettable. Thus as Beth Miller, she applied for and got the room and the job. Big problem, though, she had to sign a non-disclosure statement as part of her employment.
Thus “Beth” begins her work with Anne, a woman who has kept journals all her life. There are three hundred of them, all stored in chronological order, all kept under lock and key. Anne wants Beth to read from a five-year time period in the 1960s, so those journals get removed from the locked cabinet.
As Beth begins to read from them, we learn that Anne had a steamy affair with a famous concert pianist. Evidently, Anne wants to relive that significant time period before her life ends. Since Anne is ill and does not have the stamina to listen to the story for more than an hour a day, Beth’s reading is continuously put on hold until the next time. Of course, Anne locks up the books between sessions. Sometimes several days pass before Anne is well enough for another session. Sometimes it looks like Anne may die before the last journal entry is reached. Thus, it is cliff hanger after cliff hanger for Beth – and for all us listening in on the story.
I should mention a few things:
- The time period of the love affair is of great significance to Beth since Vengeance was written in 1965.
- During the time between readings, Beth is busy breaking into the locked cabinets to access journals from other years. She takes them to a copy shop to duplicate them completely.
- And, while the author gives Beth a background that makes her behavior understandable, nothing can make it morally acceptable.
The majority of the book is taken up learning about the affair. Indeed, there are only two chapters – 27 pages – left in the book after we finish hearing the love story.
At that point, I was worried. How could the author possibly come up with a satisfying ending in so few remaining pages? The journal entries proved Anne to be just another woman in love, not a trail blazing feminist. How could that story – juicy as it may be – benefit Beth’s dissertation? And how could she get around the non-disclosure agreement even it did? And most important, would there be no comeuppance for Beth’s duplicity?
Actually, I feared I might have missed something in my reading of the book! Perhaps that admonition MUST READ WELL pertained to me!
As you will see when you read this compelling book, the author does amazing things in the last pages and manages to tie up all loose ends in a very gratifying manner. But yes, a closer reading of the book might have helped me be less baffled about how the author would ultimately pull this off!
Bottom line: 5-star review!
Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. It will be available to the public September, 2022.