Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Edge of the Earth, by Christina Schwarz

I read and enjoyed two of Christina Schwarz's earlier novels, Drowning Ruth and All Is Vanity, two engrossing books so different it was hard to believe the same person wrote them.  It's also hard to believe the same person wrote The Edge of the Earth, but for an entirely new reason--it's just not very interesting. The protagonist is a young woman (an hour after finishing the book, I can't remember her name--oh, yes, Trudy) from a solidly middle class Midwestern family circa 1900. She meets the cousin of her intended and falls in love; this cousin, Oskar Swann, has big ideas, but never quite brings any of them to fruition. To escape from the embarrassment they caused both families, the young marrieds escape to a remote area on the California coast, where Oskar finds work as an assistant lighthouse keeper. The first part of the book, reminiscent of San Miguel (which I also wasn't crazy about), focuses on Trudy's adjustment to marriage, Oskar's ups and downs, and life in a setting with none of the niceties she is accustomed to and only one other family to provide company.  Midway through the book, the plot takes a turn involving a mysterious "mermaid," who is actually a Native America woman who lives in a cave on the shore. Oskar decides to make his name as an anthropologist by studying the woman, with rather disastrous results.

Schwarz uses a story within a story conceit (Trudy leaves an account of her life to Jane, one of the children of the other family at the lighthouse) that seems to have no point except perhaps to give a twist at the end of the book more impact. Unfortunately, the twist was neither surprising nor meaningful.

Many novels have already examined marriage and the constricted life choices of women in the 19th and early 20th centuries; Schwarz adds little to that conversation. There may also be novels exploring issues involved in ethnographic studies of indigenous people; although I have not read any, I can imagine such a novel could be both interesting and intellectually stimulating. Schwarz's novel is neither.

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