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In a rich, emotional novel, the bestselling author of Possessions and Ruling Passion presents a story of an odyssey of the heart. Upon discovering a box of letters written by his late grandmother's protegee--actress Jessica Fontaine--theater director Lucas Cameron seeks out the passionate, talented woman to try and convince her to return to the stage. 384 pp. Author tour. National media publicity. 300,000 print.
Lucas Cameron is one of the world's most famous and respected directors: his plays are legendary for their honesty and intensity. Lucas is also a bachelor, although his desperate ex-wife Claudia is determined to keep him a fixture in her life. The only person with whom Lucas shares his fears, hopes, and innermost thoughts, however, is his grandmother, the renowned actress Constance Bernhardt, who raised him after his parents died. Constance loves her "Luke" (as he's known) but harbors a secret hope that he will someday fall in love with her soulmate, the younger (Luke's age) and equally renowned actress Jessica Fontaine. When Luke and Jessica meet, however, Luke is still involved with Claudia and no sparks fly; the couple's paths don't cross again until Constance dies years later. When Constance's death comes suddenly in her villa in Italy, Luke heads there and discovers, among other things, his grandmother's cache of letters from Jessica. The correspondence (spanning 30 years) reveals a profound, mutually beneficial relationship between the two actresses; Luke also finds himself transfixed by this woman who was such an important part of his grandmother's life. When he tracks Jessica down, he's disillusioned at first; but as time goes on, both he and Jessica learn why both thought Constance the most insightful woman around.
The letter excerpts used throughout—Jessica's to Constance, Constance's to Jessica, then Luke's to Jessica and vice versa—get old about halfway through, seeming less a judicious use of technique than a means of avoiding present-day plotting and dialogue. The love story, though, is a winner.
"Why don't you like her?" his grandmother had demanded. "Good Lord, Luke, you're a director; she's an actress--one of the most brilliant in the world, which you know perfectly well--she'll take my place if I ever retire, and I'm sure you know that, too--and she's gloriously beautiful and a friend of mine even though she's young enough to be my granddaughter, and you don't like her. You don't even know her. What did you two talk about last night?"
"The play. How wonderfully the two of you work together on stage. The usual things at an opening night party."
"The usual things. Luke, you have the whole world to talk about! You share the theater and she's warm and clever and interested in everything--"
"She's interested in herself." He heard the impatience in his voice and tried to make it softer. "Opening nights don't lend themselves to leisurely conversations; you know that. It was her night, and yours, and it was a triumph, and everyone wanted to talk to the two of you. She wasn't interested in me and I wasn't impressed with her. Except on stage, of course; do you know how many times I've called her agent because I wanted her for one of my plays? She's always been busy, or she's been in London; she spends a lot of time there."
"She likes it there and London audiences love her. Oh, Luke, I had hoped..." She laid her hand along his face and after a moment said, very gently, "Do you think you might not have been at your best last night?"
"You mean because of Claudia. That had nothing to do with it." His impatience was back and his words came out clipped and hard, in spite of himself. Masking his anger, he took her hand between his, and kissed her cheek. "We'd both be happier if you'd let me handle my social life in my own way."
"Well, you might be," his grandmother said crisply, "but I see no reason why that would add to my happiness at all."
They had laughed together, as, almost always, they did after having been at cross-purposes, and had gone on to other things. In the following years, Constance tried a few more times to bring Luke and Jessica together, but their crowded schedules intervened and they were not interested enough to give her any help. And then, many years later, Constance died, and Luke went to Italy to close up her villa and, in a strange and unexpected way, that was when he came face to face with Jessica.
He sat in Constance's airy library, in the velvet wing-backed chair where she had died in her sleep, and ran his fingers over all the things she had touched in the last hours of her life: a round, damask-covered table, a decanter and glass that had been filled with wine, a silver-framed montage of pictures of himself as a boy of seven, when he had first come to live with her, as a student in high school and in college, as a director with the poster for his first play, and at the awards ceremony where he had won his first Tony for direction of Ah, Wilderness; and, closest to Constance's hand, an Italian box, elaborately carved, inlaid with gold and amber and polished to a soft black lustre. Inside were letters, hundreds of them, crammed together, the oldest-looking at the front. Luke ran his finger along the top of them, making a sound like a stick dragged along a picket fence. It seemed that the same handwriting was on all of them. He took one out at random and opened it.
Dear, dearest Constance, I want to thank you again (and again and again and again if I only knew different ways to do it!) for your wonderful, warm, generous encouragement last night. When you said I did a fine job playing Peggy, I knew I really was an actress and I'd be one for the rest of my life because Constance Bernhardt said so. The play is all you, of course, and probably no one else even noticed me, but it means the world to me just to be on stage with you. My mother said 16 was too young for summer stock, but I had to try and oh, I'm so glad I did! Thank you, thank you again! With my eternal love, Jessica.
Jessica, Luke thought. A young Jessica Fontaine at the very beginning of her career, bubbling with excitement. He glanced at the date at the top of the letter. Twenty-four years ago. So she would be forty now. And she's been writing all these years, which means my grandmother was writing, too. A long friendship. But Constance told me that, more times than I could count.
He pulled out another letter at random and unfolded it.
Dearest Constance, you won't believe this but Peter Calder got the male lead, which means I've got to do two love scenes with him. Wasn't it just last year that you and I swore we'd never get within ten feet of him? Well, here I am and I'll be fighting off his gelatinous hands for the run of the play.
Luke burst out laughing. Gelatinous. The perfect word for Peter Calder. It was the reason Luke and almost every other director had stopped giving him parts years ago. But Jessica had had two love scenes with him--when? He read the date: seventeen years ago. She'd gone from a bit part in a play with his grandmother to a role opposite Calder--who in those days was one of the top actors on Broadway and in films--in only seven years. He had forgotten how swift her success had been. That was the year, he remembered, that he had gotten his first job on Broadway. He had been twenty-eight, and for six years, since graduating from college, he'd been directing plays for small, struggling theater companies in lofts, church basements and old movie houses. They drew tiny audiences that often did not fill their forty or fifty seats, but occasionally critics came and soon people in the theater were talking about him. "Lucas Cameron's masterful direction..." began one review in The New York Times, and two months later he was offered a job as assistant director of a Broadway play. That was what he remembered about that year.
Oh, and Claudia, Luke thought. That was the year we were married.
Idly, he took a third letter from the box, about halfway in. A newspaper clipping fell from it and he unfolded it. It was from the International Herald Tribune, picked up from an Associated Press story in The Vancouver Tribune.
FATAL DERAILMENT IN CANADA
More than fifty passengers were killed and three hundred injured Monday evening, about 10:30 p.m., when The Canada Flyer derailed in Fraser River Canyon, eighty miles northeast of Vancouver. Using searchlights and rescue dogs, teams from nearby towns searched through the night in the wreckage and along the rocky banks of the Fraser River in temperatures that fell well below freezing. Among those rescued near dawn on Tuesday morning was Jessica Fontaine, world-renowned stage and film star, who had been in Vancouver for the past four months starring in a production of The Heiress. She is listed in critical condition. The train, bound for Toronto, had left Vancouver at 8 p.m. Cause of the accident, the worst in the history of Canadian rail travel, is not known.
Luke remembered the story. There had been rumors that Jessica Fontaine was on her deathbed, that she would be unable to act for a year, two years, three years, that she had escaped serious injury, that she'd be back in town in a week, two weeks, a month. No one could reach her to learn the truth. Her friends, her agent, her colleagues, television and newspaper reporters all called the hospital in Toronto, where she had been taken, but all of them heard the same message: that Miss Fontaine could not have visitors, and that she would not accept telephone calls. Her friends kept calling; her agent went to the hospital; but, week after week, no one was allowed to talk to her or see her. And finally, one day six months after the accident, they were told that she was gone, without leaving a forwarding address or telephone number or any clues as to where she could be reached.
Then there was silence. Jessica Fontaine had been the most sought after stage star in America and London, she had starred in at least two films that Luke knew of, and suddenly, after only eighteen years, she was gone. A meteor, Luke thought. Arcing luminously through the sky, then vanishing into darkness.
He replaced the letters and the newspaper clipping and ran his fingers over the box that held them. Constance had chosen one of her most beautiful possessions to hold Jessica's letters, and had kept it beside her favorite chair in the library. How she must have loved her, Luke thought. How they must have loved each other. What must it be like, to have a friend like that? I have no idea.
The telephone rang and he picked it up. "Signora Bernhardt's residence."
"Luke," demanded Claudia, "why didn't you tell me you were going to Italy? I had to ask Martin where you were...you know I hate asking butlers where people are."
He held the telephone away from his ear and gazed through the French doors at the softly sculptured hills and valleys of Umbria that surrounded his grandmother's villa. "Claudia, this trip has nothing to do with you."
"It does and you know it. We had a date for dinner last night."
"I'm sorry. I forgot. You're right; I should have called. Constance died, Claudia, and I left as soon as I heard. I wasn't thinking of anything else."
"Oh. I'm sorry." There was a pause and he could almost hear Claudia reorganizing her thoughts. "That's sad, Luke. You were so close to her. She never liked me, you know, she made that perfectly clear... Oh, I shouldn't have said that. I'm sorry, Luke, but this hasn't been a great week and then when you didn't show up and I had to call Martin to find out where you were...but I shouldn't have said that about Constance. I mean, what difference does it make now, whether she liked me or not? But I was so upset when you weren't here. I do rely on you, Luke, a little understanding, a little support. I don't think that's too much to ask."
Luke shifted in his chair, as if about to run. He was four thousand miles from Claudia and he sat in his grandmother's bright library warmed by the afternoon sun, but still he felt stifled. Which was exactly the way he had felt after two months of being married to Claudia, though it had taken him five years to ask her for a divorce. Now, eleven years after their divorce was final, he recognized almost every word of their dialogue: it was like a bad script, he thought, that no playwright could improve. But, still, he could not sweep her aside. "I'll be back in a week. We'll have dinner then."
"What night? When will you be back?"
"I haven't decided. Wednesday or Thursday. I'll call you."
"I might be busy, you know."
"We'll find a time when you're free."
"Call me before you leave Italy."
"I'll call when I get to New York. Claudia, I have to go; I have a lot of work to do."
"What? What are you doing? You must have had the funeral by now."
"I'm closing up her house. And mourning." He slammed down the phone, angry at Claudia, angry at himself for getting angry at her. He knew better; why did he let her get to him?