Excerpt from my reading journal:
Having read all of Jane Hamilton’s novels, and having waited since 2009 for another, I was pretty psyched for The Excellent Lombards.
My favourites were The Short History of a Prince and The Book of Ruth, which I read very quickly, but perhaps not as quickly as Jane Rider’s Masterpiece or Disobedience (well, they were shorter works).
They all take place in Wisconsin, but perhaps no other contains so many obvious parallels between main character and author; Mary Frances Lombard was born on a Wisconsin apple farm and Jane Hamilton married a man who was a partner in one and they live there still.
That is just the kind of adulthood which Mary Frances imagines for herself, though married contentedly (if not happily) to her brother,William.
For the duration of the novel, this is the only world which Mary Frances knows, and the only world which she cares to imagine.
This creates a rather confining cocoon for the reader, for although the novel is told in the past tense, one cannot escape the sense of an endless childhood.
This suits, however, for apparently Mary Frances (who goes by many names in the novel, depending upon who’s calling her – she hasn’t yet defined her own self, you see) was named for Frankie, the twelve-year-old heroine of Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding.
In a letter to Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers wrote: “Suddenly I said: Frankie is in love with her brother and the bride…. The illumination focused the whole book.”*
And, indeed, Jane Hamilton’s Frankie is in love with her brother, holding his hand to span the distance between their bunkbeds, although her love for him is not straightforward.
“A normal brother would have gotten furious, would have swiped the oar through the water and drenched his sister. Why was William so nice? That question made me even angrier. Why did he always have to be so patient, so patient and kind, too? He made me sick. A sharp awful pain in the head. What was wrong with him? I changed my mind – I didn’t want to be an orchard partner with him. You’d have to be an idiot, you’d have to be impaired to be so good.”
In The Excellent Lombards, unlike The Member of the Wedding, Jane Hamilton’s Frankie feels a member in every way, but also feels that her membership is threatened (sometimes by a perception that others are not as committed to the success of te apple farm as she is, sometimes by external factors, which she does not quite comprehend, although adult readers can intuit their nature).
So the similarities between the works are as interesting as the departures. (Although the idea of a library-cart relay team as a public display of prowess is more amusing, to my taste, than a wedding.)
Ultimately the focus of The Excellent Lombards, as one would guess by the title, is not only membership in the family, but the question of a legacy, the succession.
In this sense, the novel reminds me more of Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings, whereas initially it reminded me more of Jane Urquhart’s Sanctuary Line. There, too, is an overwhelming preoccuption with which members of the fishing family will carry on the family tradition, in a retelling of King Lear complicated with contemporary concerns about financial stability and resource exhaustion.
Urquhart’s novel is still a fine match, for its focus on the importance of memory, and the sense that one doesn’t properly recall childhood but reconstructs it, through a series of images recalled in a sequence which becomes a story.
As Frankie’s mother tells her father in The Excellent Lombards: “I do understand that for you the farm is the most important fearutre of the world,” she said quietly, and almost sadly, “I do know that. But, I’m not going to dwell on the money I put into the operation – gladly, I put the nest egg in gladly.”
What garners someone influence in the workings of the farm is sometimes difficult to recognize from the surface, so Frankie, as a young girl, does not completely comprehend the factors at work.
“We didn’t know that our parents were objecting to the other’s self, that enormous hulking thing each possessed, that a self of course is not inconsequential.”
And even when all the factors are known and understood, there are difficulties, differences of opinion.
“‘It’s always a slow process, coming around to change,’ my father said. He rubbed his eyes. ‘They’ll get there.’”
When one’s identity is fundamentally engaged with a piece of land, a way of life, it’s impossible to imagine oneself separate from it. “We weren’t just bored with the world; we were bored with ourselves, or we ere hardly in our selves anymore. It was hard to tell what was going on. Maybe, if we could remember one little trick about how we used to be, we could get there, get back, as if we ourselves were a country we’d left.”
When Frankie is asked “’Do you want to farm anywhere – do you love farming? Or is your love for farming about your love for home?'”, she is ill-equipped to respond.
All of these ideas are stirred up together for her, like a crumble with all the oats and sugar and cinnamon in with the apples (Courtlands or Empires or Macs would be especially nice).
*Quoted in Josyane Savigneau’s Carson McCullers: Her Life and Work (1968)