Charleston: A Novel

Charleston: A Novel

4.4 16
by Margaret Bradham Thornton
     
 

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A gifted writer makes her fiction debut with this lyrical and haunting story of missed chances and enduring love, set against the backdrop of high society Charleston, which probes the eternal question: can we ever truly go home again?

When Eliza Poinsett left the elegant world of Charleston for college, she never expected it would take her ten years to return

Overview

A gifted writer makes her fiction debut with this lyrical and haunting story of missed chances and enduring love, set against the backdrop of high society Charleston, which probes the eternal question: can we ever truly go home again?

When Eliza Poinsett left the elegant world of Charleston for college, she never expected it would take her ten years to return. Now almost a decade later, she is an art historian in London with a charming Etonian boyfriend who adores her. But the past catches up with her when she runs into Henry, her childhood love, at a wedding in the English countryside.

Already unnerved by the encounter, Eliza’s carefully guarded equilibrium is shattered when she meets Henry again in Charleston, where she’s come for her stepsister’s debut. Set against a backdrop of stately homes, the seductive Lowcountry landscape, and the entangled lives of families who trace their ancestors back for generations, Eliza has to decide if she is willing to risk everything for which she has worked so hard to be with the only man she has ever truly loved.

Charleston is an evocative, melancholy novel about one woman’s love—for both a man and an unforgettable city. Emotionally resonant, beguiling in its atmosphere, it illuminates the elusive notion of home, and explores whether we can we truly ever go back to the place—and the people—that indelibly shaped us.

Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Book Review
“Prepare to be swept away..... Margaret Bradham Thornton does a spectacular job...Charleston is my favorite Southern city and Thornton does it true justice..... I couldn’t put this novel down.”
New York Times Book Review
“The real femme fatale is the city itself, a place where the breeze in the laurel oak sounds ‘like a slow kind of applause… and the citizens speak with ‘dropped r’s that almost sounded English,’… [demonstrating] the lyricism and precision Thornton brings to her description of the region.”
Vanity Fair
September Hot Type title
Charlotte Observer
“Eliza Poinsett is a fictional heroine, Southern at that. But she doesn’t depend on the kindness of strangers, as do so many of the heroines of Tennessee Williams’s plays. Eliza is the invention of Margaret Bradham Thornton...the award-winning [editor] of Tennessee Williams’s Notebooks.”
Paris Review
“All the pieces are in place for… a Southern romance novel, a book-club pick, a beach read. What Thornton delivers...has more in common with her Williams book-an obsessive and poetic scaffolding of details...stitching them together into something larger while leaving the pieces to speak for themselves...”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Highly visual…far more evocative than many books ever manage... [Charleston] brings together a love story and a nuanced depiction of Charleston, which occupies a peculiar wrinkle within Southern culture...familiar to anyone who has contemplated returning to their hometown, wondering if it’s a step back or a ... move forward.”
Walter Isaacson
“In the tradition of great Southern novels, this lyrical tale explores the emotional terrain of love, loss, and memory. It’s about the tug of a person and of a place, leading us to confront what it means to look homeward again.”
Ron Carlson
“Margaret Thornton, in this beautiful novel, immerses us in a world, Charleston, a place both charmed and vexed by its many-layered history. Eliza’s short, sharp season of happiness forms a complete love story-lush, bittersweet, and dear.”
Anna Funder
“Charleston is a novel of enormous southern charm and a deep, sweet wisdom. As Thornton so beautifully puts it, it is ‘only okay to look for what was lost if you were prepared to find something unexpected.’”
Wall Street Journal
“The seductions of her hometown—’sun, smell of pluff mud, sound of the tide going out’—cast their spell… [a] refined romance . . . Thornton writes with characteristic elegance and restraint.”
Charleston Post & Courier
“Much more than a romance, for it delves into issues of identity, place, memory and more.”
Edgefield Advertiser
“[An] emotionally expansive, visually lush novel . . . a panoply of tints and tones”
BookReporter
Charleston is a character here, and in fact may rival Eliza for the lead role. . . . I read it in a day and wanted to get my plane ticket booked once I closed it.”
Charleston Mercury
“Bradham Thornton’s eye for detail is superb, from the swamps of the ACE Basin to a South of Broad dinner party. The final act . . . is so powerful as to necessitate a reread.”
Publishers Weekly
05/26/2014
In this fiction debut, Thornton isn't successful in an account of a woman's return home and attempt to recapture a lost love. Set in 1990, Eliza Poinsett, a London art historian, starts the book off by musing about the chance occurrences that brought her old flame Henry Heyward back into her life after years apart, causing her to wonder what to do about her current boyfriend and to wonder whether Fate "had its arms wrapped so tightly around her that it would never let her go." Eliza meets Henry again at a wedding in England after 10 years apart, but the plot follows a predictable arc; Eliza returns home to Charleston, SC, where she finds that while "she had lost part of herself… now it was coming back to her." She and Henry, a newspaper publisher, reconnect, as she finds herself more and more drawn to the one who got away, despite the presence of another man. Readers putting a premium on subtlety and originality will be disappointed. (July)
Library Journal
09/15/2014
Thornton, editor of Tennessee Williams's Notebooks, and a Charleston, SC, native, makes her fiction debut with this title. The novel conveys a strong sense of place as it describes the city's landmarks, local eccentrics, and high society through the story of Eliza Poinsett, a white woman returning to the town she grew up in after a decade away. After working in London on an art history fellowship and becoming seriously involved with an English boyfriend, Eliza runs into her old flame Henry at a wedding in England and spontaneously visits Charleston to see him. Their love is easily rekindled but complicated by the presence of Henry's nine-year-old son. Upon returning to the world of debutante parties, cotillions, and old money, Eliza discovers that her hometown seems the same but wonders whether she's changed too much to stay. VERDICT Too tame for fans of the bawdy reality TV show Southern Charm, this is a bittersweet love story with well-mannered Charlestonians who discuss art, ignore race and politics, dance at society parties, take romantic walks, eat excellent food, drink moderately, and don't have sex in front of the reader.—Laurie Cavanaugh, Holmes P.L., Halifax, MA
Kirkus Reviews
2014-06-15
A woman’s dilemma—whether to forgo an international academic career for romance in her native Charleston—is the subject of Thornton’s debut.Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1990, is an insular world where a clique of founding families cherishes their heritage, clinging to antebellum ways while snubbing the tourists and newcomers who are fueling the city’s economic resurgence.It's a world with which Thornton is, clearly, intimately familiar, and as a portrait of a city mired in the past, it works. What works less well is the story she sets against this headily atmospheric backdrop. Eliza, who, like the author, is an academic and a Charleston insider, attempted to escape her roots by moving to New York and then London to study art history.She has a liaison with Jamie, an upper-crust Englishman, but she has unresolved feelings for her childhood sweetheart, Henry, whom she left when he was unfaithful. His alcohol-fueled fling with an unbalanced Southern belle, Issie, resulted in an unplanned pregnancy and a hasty marriage and divorce. Devoid of motherly feeling, Issie has let Henry raise their son, Lawton, now 9, alone. On a visit home after a 10-year absence, Eliza is ineluctably drawn back to Henry. The only problem, besides a complete lack of narrative drive, is the absence of believable chemistry between Henry and Eliza. The couple’s rapprochement is eked out in long scenes of walking and driving, calling on friends, trips to the beach and to tennis matches, etc., which unspool with excruciating slowness almost in real time. Not until Page 200 does trouble surface in the form of a newly maternal Issie, who finally triggers some dramatic tension. It's telling that a subplot involving Eliza’s quest to authenticate a painting for an impoverished Charleston widow is more engrossing than the love story.The moving close can't redeem this novel; most readers will have given up long before the end.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780062332530
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
05/05/2015
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
221,679
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.72(d)

Meet the Author

Margaret Bradham Thornton is the editor of Tennessee Williams's Notebooks, for which she received the Bronze ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award for Autobiography/Memoir and the C. Hugh Holman Prize for the best volume of southern literary scholarship, given by the Society for the Study of Southern Literature. She is a native of Charleston, a graduate of Princeton University, and currently resides in Palm Beach, Florida.

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Charleston: A Novel 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
MiguelD1 More than 1 year ago
I am a big fan of Ron Carlson’s novels set in the west so I was intrigued by his blurb on the back of Charleston – definitely not his territory. But when I overhead my wife and her sister over a glass of wine somewhat jokingly wonder where their Henry was, I thought I should take a look.And then it all made sense. My father disappeared from my life early so I found Henry’s care for his son both touching and painful, and it reminded me of ways to be a better, less self absorbed dad. Thornton deals with the issues that matter and despite the glamour of the cover and some very funny scenes, Charleston is a deeply serious book. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to be inspired to live a better life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The title and cover alone was what made me want to click for purchase and the glowing reviews helped make the decision to do so. I knew by reading some of the reviews that it wasn’t going to be a fast paced action novel, but I didn’t expect to find myself page after page waiting for something to happen. Anything.  The extremely detailed description of the city helped me get through it, for Charleston is one of the most beautiful cities in the South.  The author made you feel like you were walking down each street with her. Story wise, it left a lot to be desired. The details of art that were incorporated due to Eliza’s occupation actually took away from the plot for me, though I do realize how the author was attempting to tie them in metaphorically to the main character’s struggles. Far too much attention was paid to the art and when reading the story it was such an abrupt shift each time from the love story to her occupation that I honestly feel like the author had difficulties trying to make the connections she was aiming for.  Henry, for all his charm, also was a major distraction. I found myself thinking that if I had come across this man after ten years regardless of my past with him, I would consider him extremely overbearing and uncomfortable to be around. I think his character’s over the top drivel and actions would have caused most women to be flattered at first, then get mildly annoyed and queasy, then run away as fast as they could! The other characters in the novel were amusing in the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil sort of way, but not believable in the least. The dialog and interactions with the main characters was an odd fit and seemed as though something the author threw in to beef up the weak story. Finally, the ending. I almost threw my reader across the room with a shout of disbelief. What an abrupt ending! I had no doubt in my mind that we were headed there, it just felt like the author rushed it entirely too much and left me extremely unsatisfied. Overall the novel was not a good fit for me personally, but I would not be opposed to trying to read another effort. 
Elie1 More than 1 year ago
At last, a Southern heroine who is smart and accomplished and isn’t concerned with dinner parties and being the perfect hostess. Eliza Poinsett is not one of those helpless frightened female characters who are trapped by their lives. Rather she is independent and educated and able to make her own choices. While this novel has its share of southern eccentrics and funny scenes , the novel ultimately is about love and the power of forgiveness. Thornton creates characters who are hard not to pull for and who stay with you long after the novel ends.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful, very well-written book. I don’t typically gravitate toward romance novels, but this is not your average romance novel. Margaret Bradham Thornton, like all great authors, transports you to another place – you forget that you are reading, as opposed to standing invisible in the corner, observing the characters and story as they steadily unfold. I have always loved the unique city of Charleston and it is refreshing to see the city so carefully and authentically illustrated. But what I most loved about this book is the reflective way the author explored those matters that affect us all so deeply: our sense of identity; the role of our family, past and present; the pull of our past and “home”; regret and self-doubt; security, trust and love. While Charleston and Eliza’s world may be very foreign to your own, you will undoubtedly identify with Eliza and Henry. All the while, you will be turning the pages a little faster as you go, enjoying the twists and turns of the story, expertly illustrated by strong characters and elegant prose. I highly recommend the book for all ages.
hemypicasso More than 1 year ago
CHARLEStON Is WONDERFUL Loved this charming novel set in Charlseston, S. Carolina. This novel has a wondeful story line with quite interesting characters. I love the authors descriptions of the cahrming city of Charleston which one of our countries lovelitest and hsitorical. Charleson is brought to life in a fine story by Margaret B. Thorton. She does a fine job weaving charactors with story and this lovely little city, Charleston. The way she has written the book makes me want to hop on a plane or train and run down to Charleston to soak up some of that lovely southern city. I'd bring this book with me and read it  again at a lvoely little hotel in Charleston. Bravo, the book is brilliant
ADumit More than 1 year ago
I don’t think I have read a novel where a city is such a character - and what a city it is - a city filled with stately homes, gossip, and entangled lives and set against a sultry and untamed backdrop. Thornton writes in a way that makes the  reader feel the slow seduction of the place, the ghosts who haunt the houses and the beauty of the landscape. When I finished the novel I felt I had taken a trip to Charleston and met the special characters, none more charming than Henry, who does his best to get Eliza back. It is a lovely story written beautifully and I highly recommend it. 
Senior-D More than 1 year ago
Really enjoyed the book ......finished it much too soon.
Anonymous 10 months ago
Being from Charleston I wanted to see what the writer had to say and how many description she would get right. She nailed it with the depiction. As far as the story line it's a very nice love story. I'm not in that class of society but I also didn't know Charleston had a high society!! It also made me home sick
PierresFamily More than 1 year ago
Charleston is a sweet little novel about a middle-aged woman's return to her hometown and her true love. Will it work out? What do the rest of their lives hold for the couple? I wont give away any spoilers. Suffice it to say that it's a touching story, and i really cared about the characters. The only "complaint" I have is really an amusing annoyance. Seemingly out of nowhere, in the last chapter, it seemed that about half the quotes began with the word "God." A friend of mine in the know about the publishing industry, once told me that editors sometimes add a little "spicier" language when they think the writing is too wholesome and not cynical enough. That could be the case here. Regardless, I recommend the book - but really, the needless "God" insertions just detracted from the moving story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very flat and lacked any punch in descriptions buska
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
PhilipD More than 1 year ago
Charleston is a novel that entertains, educates and enchants. Eliza Poinsett, a Charlestonian, returns home to attend her stepsister’s debutante party and runs into a former boyfriend, Henry who knows how to dance and to find his way through a swamp without a compass. Eliza is charmed by Henry and  she has to come to grips with what this all means to her. Like The Goldfinch this novel is filled with information about art from an 18th portrait painter to a slave potter Dave to the French post impressionist Pierre Bonnard. The enchantment comes in the spare lyrical language that mirrors the theme of beguilement. It is emotional resonance - not action - that drives this novel forward. And the ending is powerful and moving and takes the novel to another level as it shows the power of empathy as a redemptive force. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written novel that exceeded my expectations and is definitely one I will be recommending to my friends
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you are looking for a detailed map of downtown Charleston, this is the book for you. I was hoping for a new novelist along the lines of Anne Rivers Siddons. Alas, not even close. The central character did not ring true to me at all as well as either of her love interests. This one goes to the used book store, rather than loaned to my reading friends.
djwilner More than 1 year ago
Writing evokes that which isn’t there, and the best writing makes the absent so vividly present as to be more real than the thing itself. Good writing raises the dead. And it is hard to think of a recent novel that is more haunted and haunting, more brilliantly interested in the dynamic interplay between past and present, gone and here, than Charleston, the exquisite debut novel by the scholar Margaret Bradham Thornton. The book aches with longing for what is lost, while still brimming with hope for our power to reorder our lives, if only by engaging with our losses as courageously and compassionately as we can.  At the heart of the story is Eliza, an art historian in her late twenties – old enough to have a past, young enough to maybe do something about it. Eliza is haunted by the ghost of Henry, her first love, from her native Charleston. Their relationship went wrong in their early twenties when Henry committed an act of drunken infidelity. Eliza could not bear the betrayal and moved first to New York and then to London, where she excelled as a student and fell in love with Jamie, a well-bred, charming, and altogether kind man. When Eliza returns to Charleston for her stepsister’s debutante party, she reconnects with Henry and is forced to tackle a set of “equations” between them that “had remained unsolved.” And now Eliza is deeply torn: between Henry and Jamie, Charleston and London, past and present selves, old home and new. Where does she truly belong?   Only by reckoning with her past can Eliza determine her present course. But when is it too late to go back? The more you run, the harder you make your life when you decide to turn around and face what’s been chasing you: “Ten years of such different worlds–wasn’t that enough to shift things between [Henry and her] so that even if they tried, they would never be able to fit together anymore?” That desperate quest to regain what is lost – to reanimate something dead – echoes Eliza’s vividly interesting work as an art historian. Eliza’s work, in turn, reflects that of her creator, whose investigative work in piecing together the notebooks of Tennessee Williams – a project that spanned a full ten years – stands as one of the most impressive projects of theatrical and literary scholarship in recent memory. It is as though by reconstructing Williams’ diaries so thoroughly, Thornton might have brought the man back to life. Yet inevitably a gap remains, and it is that gap that interests Thornton here.   Charleston is a fine addition to the recent spate of novels featuring strong female protagonists engaged in the art world, not least Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Claire Messud’s A Woman Upstairs, and Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings. Yet while those novels tend to focus on the vicissitudes of making, Eliza studies what has already been made as a way of reconnecting with something lost. Her investigations into the works of portrait painter Henrietta Johnston and the slave potter Dave are riveting subplots of genuine sleuthing. They rarely yield conclusive results, but they teach Eliza something she did not expect to learn, and it is less an instruction of fact as one of empathy. For instance, she examines the stunning pots of the slave potter Dave and concludes: “This was what was left of a life, she thought. Sturdy pots that had been made for service, and yet the maker had also made them beautiful.” Why? Why did he do that? Neither Eliza nor we will ever know. What is lost can never be fully recovered or understood, but as we study it, its mysteries can enchant us and even uplift us, reflect something back to us about who we are or who we want to be.  This, perhaps, is what is most affecting in Eliza’s evolution as she explores her relationship with Henry. Things have indeed changed unalterably: Henry now has a nine-year-old son, Lawton, the result of his regrettable affair. The boy cannot but serve as a painful and permanent reminder of the misjudgment that ended Eliza’s and Henry’s relationship. Yet Lawton also stands as copy to the father – a powerful reminder of his beauty and ultimate goodness. And in one of the most poignant reversals I can recall, Lawton becomes a vital ingredient in Eliza’s rapprochement with Henry. And so her provocative conclusion: “There was no point in looking for what once was or might have been because you would never be able to find it. It only made sense to look for what was lost if you were prepared to find something unexpected.” Eliza grows up. She learns that much can never be recovered, yet sometimes there is the chance for a kind of renewal or growth that can be all the more uplifting because of the bitterness that led to it. These themes echo off the old streets and estates of the city of Charleston, which is itself a beguiling character in the novel. As in Orhan Pahmuk’s Snow, in which Istanbul serves as both foil and fodder for the protagonist’s longing and questioning, here Charleston both reflects and inflames Eliza’s anxieties and hopes. The place is unchanging and predictable in its customs – a source of both appeal and disquiet, “comfort and danger” – yet it is also wonderfully variegated and surprising in its landscapes: “everything here was sinuous, unordered, untamed.” The city is deeply seductive in Thornton’s meticulous rendition, and that seductiveness is embodied in Henry, who is effortlessly capable of navigating the city’s different purlieus: he “knew every inch of his world, and she felt safe with him.” It is as though he helps Eliza rediscover a world she had lost – quite literally, he helps her come home again. And in her exploration of both the city and the man she thought had been lost to her, Eliza discovers something she did not expect: “even though this world around her now was so familiar that she could navigate it blind, being back with Henry gave her access to a whole new continent of feelings. It was a world that could never be seen, but it was there–underneath the surface of everything–joyful and pure.”  Charleston is unmistakably a Southern novel, not least in that it explores Faulkner’s oft-cited line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Yet, whereas for Faulkner the past is a kind of curse, as the sins and traumas of each generation are revisited upon their descendants, for Thornton the past can be a terrifically fecund place, so long as we are prepared to find something unexpected there. In a sensitive and uplifting twist on Faulkner’s aphorism, Charleston offers that in grappling with the undead in our past, we can discover all the life we knew, somewhere in our hearts, was there all along.