Monday, June 24, 2019

The Things We Don’t Say by Ella Carey

Those of you readers who have read earlier works of Ella Carey know that she has had a lifelong love-affair with France (as is manifest in Paris Time Capsule and The House by the Lake).  In her 2018 novel, The Things We Don’t Say, the action switches back and forth between London and a country farm house in Provence. As Carey is quick to acknowledge, this novel was inspired by the Bloomsbury group, and although she insists that all characters are spun from her imagination, in her acknowledgements she says,
“I have long been intrigued by the artist Vanessa Bell and her beautiful relationship with her fellow artist, Duncan Grant.” In the novel, Emma Temple’s story has as its background this intrigue Carey had with Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, and other writers and artists in the Bloomsbury group.

Emma is an artist who establishes a kind of sanctuary in Provence for the unconventional bohemian young artists who she makes into her family. It is 1913. She lives there with her husband, Oscar, who is really more like a brother or companion than a husband, and among the other guests is a famous painter by the name of Patrick and his lover Rupert. It is really the deep love between Patrick and Emma that is central to the story, although he is homosexual and she is not.

The second strand of the story is told by Emma’s granddaughter, Laura, who is studying violin at the Royal College of Music. Thus the reader is taken back and forth between London in l1980 and Provence in the years leading up to and including World War I and beyond. While Patrick and Emma are not sexual lovers, there love is profound, and Patrick spends years painting a portrait of Emma though he has refused in the past to do portraits of anyone he knows. The painting is his tribute to their love. 

Patrick becomes a famous artist and his works are a huge commercial success. For that reason, the paining Ella has is of great value by the time Laura enters the story. Indeed, his work is so famous that Ella is able to secure a loan using it as collateral—a loan large enough to support Laura’s expensive education at the the Royal Academy. Just as art and color are everything to Emma, music is everything to Laura and intensifies the bonds between her and her grandmother.

Alas, a well-respected art critic who is considered an expert on Patrick’s paintings, publishes and article in the Times claiming that the Emma portrait is not his work. All the rest of the novel is occupied with this issue. At first Ewan, the art critic, refuses to divulge to Laura how he knows the painting is not genuine, although he insists that he is absolutely certain that it is not. 

While the story of the painting and of the threat to Laura’s music education is the thread that weaves together the lives of Ella and Laura, what I found to be the overarching significance of the novel was the descriptions of how the so-called bohemians lived their lives in a world that did not at all share their values. Not unlike the young people in the 6os and 70s, Ella’s ‘family’ believes in free love, is open to homosexuality and to all races, and they are also by and large pacifists in a world just about to be engulfed in a world war. 

Because Ella knows all too well how parents can smother the dreams of their children by refusing to support their endeavors, she empathizes completely with Laura when Laura’s parents refuse to support her musical endeavors. Emma’s father had likewise refused to support her love of art, and it is only his early death that allows her to continue with her painting. 
Color was what inspired her, drawing her away from the coldness of her home life. Her childhood walks with her siblings and their nanny in Kensington Gardens every afternoon had started it, and she’d embraced getting out of the dark and stuffy house close to the park. Her delicate senses became assaulted and captivated, drawn in by the blowsy, rain-soaked greens and the whites of meadow flowers, the deep reds and brilliant oranges of spring tulips, the fresh air, the blossoms and blue sky and birds. She’s wanted to capture it, bottle it as soon as she returned home, so it didn’t get lost. Nature seemed the opposite of rules, so that was what she drew and painted early on. 
She’d learned to put men off by seeming distant. She preferred, by far, to be thought cold and aloof than to get caught in any way, having to spend the rest of her life stuck as the wife in a repressive Victorian-style household. 
Painting is her refuge and what gives her life meaning and direction. Her older brother Frederick gathers around himself a group of Oxford intellectuals, and when he dies at a very young age, it is she who becomes the keeper of the group, providing a gathering place for the bohemian misfits. 

Emma’s only romantic love is for Patrick and when her friends scold her for not living with a man who desires her. Since she can choose anyone, why not choose someone who can love her fully. Her reply to Rupert, Patrick’s lover, when he puts a move on her and suggests a menage a trois:
Love chooses us, just as birth chooses us, just as death chooses us. These things are entirely random…I am unable to sleep with anyone without an emotional connection to them.
She continues:
You are being irrational. You just told me that Patrick loves me. And as for the way I choose to live—is there something wrong with a woman wanting to live life on her own terms? I acknowledge that love is beyond our control, that so much in the world is random, but I insist on the dignity of being able to run the aspects of my own life that I can run myself. And that includes saying no to love affairs that will ultimately go nowhere. 
Much like those of us who really came of age in the 60s, Ella’s self-made family decides that sexual jealousy is irrational, and therefore is to be rejected. Since cool rationality should be the guide in life, whatever is irrational can simply be denied or ignored. Didn’t work out quite that way for us or for Ella’s circle; still I find their arguments cogent, and I believe we often give up way too much in our lives (including significant relationships) in the name of monogamy and sexual fidelity. 

Is the famous painting a fraud, and will Laura have to give up her music? These and other plot questions you will have to answer by reading the book.

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