Julia Glass’ sixth and latest novel starts with the death of an author/illustrator, a fictional counterpart of the late and legendary Maurice Sendak, but it’s not gloomy.
“A House Among the Trees”
by Julia Glass
Pantheon, 349 pp., $27.95
Love and loss have been frequent themes for writer Julia Glass. Her debut novel, the 2002 National Book Award winner “Three Junes,” combined a reprise of the AIDS epidemic with a tale of marital mismatch. Her sixth and latest novel, “A House Among the Trees,” starts with a death and then branches out to other kinds of absence — the loss of innocence, identity and control, among them. Emotional voids can have many sources.
But “A House Among the Trees” is not a gloomy book, as an observant reader might guess from the shades of meaning that can be teased from the title. Irony of ironies, the bucolic Connecticut home of famed children’s book author/illustrator Mort Lear becomes his death trap when he tumbles out of a granddaddy maple on his property. Was he metaphorically swinging from the treetops? No matter: Lear, a fictional counterpart of the late and legendary Maurice Sendak, exits stage left, and the camera turns toward his survivors.
First and foremost among them is Tomasina (Tommy) Daulair, Lear’s devoted assistant. Having spent three decades as the unsung woman behind a gifted and driven gay man, she unexpectedly finds herself heir to his fortune and the master of his literary legacy.
The author of “A House Among the Trees” will read at 7 p.m. Monday, July 10, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
Tiptoeing out from behind Lear’s bigger-than-life persona, Tommy encounters both Nicholas Greene, the British actor chosen to portray Lear in a movie, and Merry Galarza, the woman who expected to be the author/artist’s literary executor. Merry, newly divorced and doubly vulnerable after a long and unsuccessful struggle to become pregnant, is aghast to find that her plans for a museum showcasing Lear’s work are now in jeopardy. Meanwhile, the handsome hunk Nicholas is more consumed with grief over his mother’s death than his recent ascension to stardom.
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Pieces of Lear’s past emerge in flashbacks that introduce Lear’s gay partner, Soren, who died from AIDS, and Dani, Tommy’s misbegotten brother. Having served as the model for Ivo, the main character in Lear’s breakout book, Dani is angry that Lear appropriated not only his image but also his sister’s life in pursuit of fame and fortune.
The story unfolds from multiple points of view, revealing an artist who, while cynical about his fans and the industry he served, was also a creative force to reckon with.
Glass, an astute observer of relationships and master of dialogue, knits the story together by inventing the effervescent projects that sprung from Lear’s mind, including the children’s book featuring his sketches of Tommy’s brother, in which a black-and-white world explodes into “Colorquake,” and a young-adult series featuring three young cancer patients who call themselves “the Inseparables.”
Gradually, it becomes clear that Lear’s sense of childlike wonder was both the key to his success and, like his house in the trees, a shelter from a world too brutal for his sensitive soul. As Tommy ruefully reflects, “I didn’t even realize until after he died how essentially lonely he was.”
In the classic sense, “A House Among the Trees” is a comedy, not a tragedy, as the remaining members of the Lear entourage take stock and move forward with their lives. The book echoes Shakespeare, another rather astute observer of souls: All’s well that ends well — or, at least, well enough.