"Imagine the pleasure, if one could accomplish it, of living in more than one era." This invitation is extended by a character in Wendy Lesser's...

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“The Pagoda in the Garden”
by Wendy Lesser

Handsel Books, 212 pp., $23.95

“Imagine the pleasure, if one could accomplish it, of living in more than one era.” This invitation is extended by a character in Wendy Lesser’s first novel, which, appropriately enough, is set in three separate eras.

“The Pagoda in the Garden” jumps from the turn of the last century to the 1950s to the early 1970s. The character urging this imaginative leap is Roderick Stephen, not-too-loosely based on Henry James. The first section of the book is a fictionalized treatment of the friendship between James and Edith Wharton, here embodied by a frighteningly competent lady novelist named Charlotte.

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Critic, essayist and Threepenny Review founder Lesser has a wonderful time imagining the complicated layer cake that must have been the relationship between these two writers. Visiting him at his country place near Cambridge, Charlotte admits that she worships Roderick, and yet at the same time is frustrated by that worship: “It was simply impossible, if you admired him at all, to strike out on your own separate path. It was as if he took up all the available oxygen in the literary universe — breathed it in through those long, sinuous, subtly inflected sentences of his, and only doled out his exhalations to the rest of us.”

This literary friendship could easily have sustained a whole novel, but Lesser, remember, wants to live in more than one era at a time, so we jump ahead to 1956 where we find Sarah, a divorced American academic living in Cambridge. She develops a feverish crush on another expat, and then we’re off to 1971, where a nameless female student, again an American, is getting her heart broken, again in Cambridge.

Lesser’s themes bounce back and forth across the novel, making for a big-feeling sweep in a pretty small volume. So well does the thing hang together that one is tempted to call it a neat trick, but it’s better — more human and engaging — than mere literary showmanship.