In 1940s California a real estate developer, Andrew Jackson Blackwood, stumbles upon Condor’s Nest and its owner, Bruder. Blackwood wants to buy the property but initially Bruder sends him away, onto another piece of land, the Rancho Pasadena, and wouldn’t you know it, Bruder owns that as well. Eager to do business, Blackwood gets to know Bruder and the past of both properties, how they came to be in his possession, and more specifically, his relationship with a woman named Linda Stamp.
Linda was born in 1903 in the small town of Baden-Baden-by-the-Sea, and grew up at Condor’s Nest. Her father Dieter is German and her mother Valencia is Mexican. We learn their stories as well as Linda’s and her brother, Edmund’s. Linda grows up a free spirit, helping out on the onion farm and becoming an expert fisherwoman and lobster catcher. Her brother Edmund is somewhat weak willed and Dieter feels he will not be able to take over the running of the farm. During WW1 Dieter joins up and goes over seas, returning with a young man, Bruder, who comes to live with them. Linda and Bruder have chemistry from the start, but how he came to meet her father and exactly what kind of deal has been made between them, Linda does not know.
Later Bruder goes to work at the Rancho Pasadena, and Linda joins him. He runs the orange groves for rich boy Willis Poore, whom Bruder also met during the war and has a deal with. Bruder assumes that once he has made something of himself he will be able to be with Linda, thinking his feelings for her are clear. But of course nothing runs smoothly and story heads towards ‘tragedy’. (I put it in inverted commas because, though I assume it’s supposed to be tragic, I didn’t get that feeling at all.)
The book is separated into sections, moving backwards and forwards in time, sometimes with Bruder being in charge of the tale, and at others its Mrs Cherry Nay, an old friend old friend of Linda’s who is helping to sell the ranch, and who knows the story from Bruder.
I really enjoyed David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife and was eager to read some of his other novels. It’s a shame that this one hasn’t left the same impression. A quote on the front of the book fromThe Wall Street Journal says ‘Wuthering Heights meets East of Eden.’ I haven’t read either and now am not inclined to, although I can only assume they are much better than this. One of the problems I had with it was that it’s trying very hard to be a moving, sprawling family saga of love and betrayal and missed opportunities, but it misses the mark. I didn’t really care about Bruder or Linda, finding it hard to be sympathetic toward people who are mostly at fault for their own circumstances. It would be one thing if it were the times or something else outside of their control which kept them apart, but it’s not, it’s just themselves and their own stubbornness. If they had just been honest with each other about how they felt they could have spared each other much of their misery. There was just no reason for either of them not to say what they wanted, there would have been no terrible consequences, and as the novel continued their lack of awareness grew more and more irritating and removed any sense of tragedy that there could have been, and I considered giving up on the book more than once.
The book also wants to keep you guessing with its revelations and withholds information for some time, but instead of making you intrigued it’s just unnecessarily confusing and by the time the revelations did come I’d forgotten what was so important about them to begin with. There’s no need for it to be so convoluted in structure, zipping about from past to present, trying to be cryptic, and I don’t really think the storyline with Blackwood and Mrs Nay works at all. I can see what Ebershoff was trying to do, but there are too many times when the story is getting going and then one or the other will decide not to tell that part, and Blackwood has to go off and find the other for the next piece of the puzzle. It’s not like they don’t both know the whole story, it’s just a way to eke it out a bit longer.
I will say that it started off quite well, and that Ebershoff’s writing is quite lovely, if a little bogged down with too much detail. I understand he must have researched Pasadena’s history but we don’t need to know it all to set the scene. I also really liked Linda as a young girl and into early adulthood. She seemed feisty and smart and looked to make her mark on the world, she wanted more than what was expected of her as a woman. And then she grows up and seems to lose all her independent spirit, becomes trapped between two men and loses all sense of perspective and the ability to judge when people are telling the truth. It was very difficult to have any sympathy for her, even toward the end when things are going rather badly.
I’m not saying I won’t pick up any of Ebershoff’s other books after this, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend this as your first read. Stick to The 19th Wife.