My boss loves having me read whatever his classes are reading so he can talk about the books with someone who’s not a student, and The Maze at Windemere ended up on my desk after he taught his Gilded Age course. We have vastly divergent tastes in books, but most of the time he’s pretty good at nailing what we’ll both enjoy…… This was not one of those times.
I didn’t really know what to expect from this book, and after finishing it, I’m still not sure what I was supposed to get out of it. The Maze at Windemere is broken up by chapter between five major characters all living in Newport, RI in different time periods. Sandy Allison is a defunct tennis pro who ends up at Windemere to teach tennis lessons and gets mixed up with the crazy bi-polar heir to Windemere in 2011, Franklin Drexel is a closeted gay man trying to secure his place among the illustrious 400 by marrying the widow of Windemere in 1896, Henry James is emerging as a young writer at the Newport vacation hotels of 1863, an unnamed British officer has the hots for a Colonial girl in 1778, and an orphaned Quaker girl named Prudence is trying to hold her life together in 1692. What do all these characters have in common, you might ask? What’s the thread that pulls this all together?
I tried so hard to find the connection, but aside from the location and a few odd-lot details about certain buildings or historical names from one chapter to the next, these characters have nothing to do with each other. To Smith’s credit, he does bring in the maze as connective tissue in a few places, but in a metaphorical way – the maze of the mind, or the maze of the heart – not the literal maze that’s made into a huge deal in the 2011 and 1896 chapters. The only other connective tissue is that all the characters are dealing with some kind of love/lust situation they seem unable to overcome. Smith alludes to many things in his characters’ lives, but since three out of the five characters use first person diary entries to tell their stories, a lot is left for the reader to decipher for themselves, and while I appreciate not being spoon-fed, I also don’t want to have to cook my own chicken if I’ve been invited to dinner.
Maybe I just didn’t get the nuance. Maybe I’m not cultured enough to understand the art going on here. But either way, I got to the end of the book and had no idea why I’d just wasted three weeks reading it. I should have DNFed this one, but I kept hanging on, hoping that at some point all the characters would converge, that all the tightly packed storytelling would weave together. But in the end, it was just a bunch of characters living their depressing lives in a place called Newport.
Bingo Square: Not My Wheelhouse