Four Letters of Love

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Overview

A tale of destiny, acceptance, & the tragedies & miracles of everyday life.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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Lovers pave the way with letters." Taking this cue from Ovid, Niall Williams fashions his rapturous debut novel as a modern Art Of Love, a prose examination of love and its endless set of variations. The ostensibly isolated yet mystically connected stories of two Irish families, each profoundly touched by God, establish the novel's framework, but it is Williams's fascination with the genesis of attraction and the overwhelming desire to love and to be loved that provides its profound emotional depth.

Nicholas Coughlan was 12 years old when God spoke to his father for the first time. "God didn't say much. He told my father to be a painter, and left it at that, returning to a seat amongst the angels and watching through the clouds over the grey city to see what would happen next." But even in Catholic Ireland, personal audiences with God are something of a rarity, and from the viewpoint of Nicholas's mother, certain to signify more of a burden than a blessing. Abandoning the care of his wife and child to providence, William Coughlan accepts his holy charge, quits his job in the civil service, and sets out for the rugged solitude of the coast to do God's will. He returns at summer's end with the first rough underpaintings of his "remembered vision of the glory of God," canvases that do nothing to allay his wife's worst fears. In the months that follow, while his father wrestles with doubt and his mother slips quietly into despair, Nicholas comes to view his family as "a sort of test unit for God...a kind of three-person Moses or Job or somebody, alittlehousehold upon which He had decided to lay the burdens of His presence...." William Coughlan persists in his attempts to capture the very essence of creation, despite personal tragedy and disappointments that would shake the faith of any other man. In time, he completes three canvases, then, to Nicholas's amazement, announces that his work is finished.

At the same time, on an island off the west coast, Isabel Gore and her musically gifted younger brother, Sean, have constructed an elaborate fantasy world for themselves. But their idyllic childhood is shattered when Sean is taken with a fit after a frenzy of music and dancing and is left a mute semi-invalid. Unable to bear the senselessness of the incident, Isabel secretly blames herself for her brother's fate, and "[o]n the isle of quietness, Isabel began to feel a prisoner of what she had done." During her years away at a mainland secondary school, this secret shame takes its toll; where once she had been the island's quickest student, the headmaster's daughter with a bright future, she now chafes at the nuns' authority and becomes distracted and morose. By the time of her chance meeting with a Galway ne'er-do-well by name of Peader O'Luing, her self-esteem has ebbed sufficiently that she accepts his clumsy neediness as love, convinced that she deserves no better. Reading between the lines of the letters Isabel sends home, her mother guesses at her daughter's predicament, but conceals her suspicions from her husband, fearing that they would "knock the last love out of him."

Without revealing too much of the plot, suffice to say that through a series of remarkable coincidences, or, as William Coughlan would have it, by divine will, the two stories begin to converge. But as compelling as the story is, as each thread inexorably shuttles its way through warp and woof to mesh with the others, it is each character's inner commentary on the rewards and disappointments of love that is this novel's master stroke. In these digressions we learn how Nicholas's mother, ardently courted by William Coughlan, "mistook the new delight of her effect on a man's heart for the ecstasy of being in love," and how William eventually won her with the white-hot intensity of his letters. Similarly pursued by Peader, Isabel succumbs to the romance of his longing, until the very idea of him begins "to take on the dimensions of love." Isabel's mother, Margaret, considering how love first fills the heart to bursting then bleeds back drop by drop with life's routines, marvels at how immense her love for her husband must have been to last so long. Even long-suffering Nicholas at last finds love, though he will have to overcome formidable opposition to achieve it: "Imagine that one of the aches of the world had been secretly mended, and music heralded the news, rising along allegro with notes like joy and laugher pealing as she opened the door. This is how I came to see Isabel Gore for the first time."

In a world littered with "literary romances," Niall Williams has written an original and visionary love story — one that never takes the easy way out, never sounds a false chord. Powerfully evocative and emotionally exhausting, Four Letters of Love is a truly unforgettable book.

Katharine Weber
. . .[A] luminously written, magical work of fiction. . .filled with marvelous characters, large and small. — The New York Times Book Review
USA Today
Wonderfully explores the mystery that is love.
San Francisco Chronicle
A compelling meditation on loveart and the vicissitudes of fate.
Boston Globe
A deeply spiritual work of art.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This sparkling, lyrical and touching piece of Irish magic realism is a first novel by a writer known previously -- if at all to American readers -- as the author of a series of nonfiction books, written with his wife, about life in a remote corner of Ireland. Certainly nothing in that past suggests the poetic assurance and narrative legerdemain of Four Letters. (The very title, in fact, is a play on words, with both the English and Latin words for love playing a role, as do significant missives written by several of the characters.)

Two stories proceed side by side and eventually merge in a dazzling display of emotional and literary pyrotechnics. In one, a frustrated Dublin civil servant, William Coughlan, feels himself called by God to be a painter and sets off alone for the wild seascapes of the West of Ireland, leaving his wife and young son, Nicholas, to fend for themselves. In the other, schoolteacher Muiris Gore's family, living on a remote island off the shore of Galway, is riven when son Sean is mysteriously reduced to a human vegetable and his lovely sister Isabel feels somehow responsible. The fates of the two families are eventually intertwined when Coughlan's last surviving painting is given as a prize for Gore's early, thwarted poetry. Meanwhile, Williams conveys the shattering power of first love in a series of heartfelt scenes: Coughlan's desperate courtship of his wife; Margaret Gore's infatuation with Muiris; Isabel's unwise attachment to a young shopkeeper when she is sent away to school on the mainland; and, finally, the inevitable attraction that grows between Isabel and Nicholas when he comes on a quixotic errand to recover his dead father's sole masterpiece -- and unknowingly brings about Sean's recovery. The tale, with its exquisite rendering of fickle Irish weathers, combines power and delicacy in the most careful balance; and the ultimate flowerings of magic seem only a natural manifestation of the hidden mysteries of the human heart. This could be one of the sleepers of the season.

Library Journal
In a dingy little city in Ireland, civil servant William Coughlin abandons his job and his family because he believes God has commanded him to paint. The son wants to hate his father but cannot, eventually following him into the west of Ireland to try to understand his father's motivations and redeem his life. On an island off the west coast of Ireland, young Isabel blames herself when her gifted little brother falls mysteriously mute and lame, and though she heads to the mainland for schooling, her schoolteacher father has great dreams for her, expecting her to redeem his life. Her guilt and her passionate nature combine to drive her off course. Naturally, these two stories meet and blend beautifully in Williams' lyrical, dreamy first novel, which more than anything else is a meditation on the love, both sacred and profane, that shapes us. Both William and Isabel look for signs from God, and both are disappointed. But there is a miracle at the end that redeems everyone.

Readers will find the occasional passage of grievous overwriting that one might expect from a beginner and just as often thoughtful, wonderfully wrought passages that soar and soar. -- Barbara Hoffert

Library Journal
In a dingy little city in Ireland, civil servant William Coughlin abandons his job and his family because he believes God has commanded him to paint. The son wants to hate his father but cannot, eventually following him into the west of Ireland to try to understand his father's motivations and redeem his life. On an island off the west coast of Ireland, young Isabel blames herself when her gifted little brother falls mysteriously mute and lame, and though she heads to the mainland for schooling, her schoolteacher father has great dreams for her, expecting her to redeem his life. Her guilt and her passionate nature combine to drive her off course. Naturally, these two stories meet and blend beautifully in Williams' lyrical, dreamy first novel, which more than anything else is a meditation on the love, both sacred and profane, that shapes us. Both William and Isabel look for signs from God, and both are disappointed. But there is a miracle at the end that redeems everyone.

Readers will find the occasional passage of grievous overwriting that one might expect from a beginner and just as often thoughtful, wonderfully wrought passages that soar and soar. -- Barbara Hoffert

USA Today
Wonderfully explores the mystery that is love.
San Francisco Chronicle
A compelling meditation on love, art and the vicissitudes of fate.
Boston Globe
A deeply spiritual work of art.
Katharine Weber
. . .[A] luminously written, magical work of fiction. . .filled with marvelous characters, large and small.
The New York Times Book Review
Marianne Faithfull
I never thought I would find such an honorable and well-written book about love and truth, men and women, heart and despair - Four Letters of Love is a joy, an acutely evocative and sexual story...and my God, I couldn't put it down.
Kirkus Reviews
A remarkable first novel from Williams—whose four previous books, written with his wife, have chronicled contemporary Irish life (The Luck of the Irish)—offers a powerful portrait of tragedy and of the redemption offered by love. Nicholas was a normal Dublin 12-year-old when his civil-servant father came home to announce he'd forsaken his career to become a painter. The full implications of that decision became clear shortly thereafter: Abandoning wife and son, the artist went off to the Irish countryside for the summer. After two summers of this and no income, Nicholas' mother committed suicide. Father and son struggled on, making one memorable painting trip to the western coast, after which cows destroyed many of the paintings, leaving the artist in doubt of his vocation. Years pass. Nicholas' own civil service career is cut short when his father burns his paintings, their house, and himself. Only one painting remains, a work that had been purchased and given as an award to a poet living on one of the western isles, and Nicholas goes to see whether he can buy it back. The poet's family is also familiar with despair: The only son, a musical prodigy, suffered a seizure one day while playing for his dancing sister, Isabel, and for years has been unable to play or speak. Isabel, blaming herself for his affliction, grew wild in her mainland convent school and threw away a good chance at a university education to marry a coarse, unprosperous tweed merchant whom she doesn't love. Nicholas arrives on the scene the day after Isabel's wedding, and his presence magically, inexplicably, begins to cause a shift in the prevailing winds of fortune.

While a wealth ofimpressions linger from this debut, two words come most often to mind in describing it: Spellbinding. Brilliant.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780446674935
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 11/1/1998
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 391,293
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Read an Excerpt

When I was twelve years old God spoke to my father for the first time. God didn't say much. He told my father to be a painter, and left it at that,returning to a seat amongst the angels and watching through the clouds over the grey city to see what would happen next.

At the time my father was a civil servant. He was a thin man, tall and wiry, with bones poking out into his skin. His hair had turned silver when he was twenty-four and given him a look of age and severity which was later to deepen and increase to such an extent that he could not walk down a street without being noticed. He looked touched by something, an impression furthered by the dazzling blueness of his eyes and the fewness of his words. Although I had no brothers or sisters, from the first twelve years of my life I can remember little of what he ever said to me. The words have vanished and I am left mostly with pictures of my early childhood: My father in a grey suit coming in the front door from the office in the fog of November evenings, the briefcase flopping by the telephone table, the creak in the stairs and across the ceiling above the kitchen as he changes into a cardigan and comes down for his tea. The great shelf of his forehead floating up above the line of a newspaper in response to some question. The New Year's Day swims in the frozen sea at Greystones. I hold his towel and he walks his high frailty into the water, his rib cage and shoulders like a twisted jumble of coat hangers in an empty suit bag. His toes curve up off the stones, off the ends of his arms he seems to carry invisible bags. Seagulls don't move from him and the pale gleam of his naked body as he stands before the blue-grey sea might be the colour of the wind. My father is thin as air, when a high wave crashes across his wading thighs it might snap him like a wafer. I think the sea will wash him away, but it never does. He emerges and takes the towel. For a moment he stands without drying. I am hooded and zippered into my coat and feel the wind that is freezing him. Still, he stands and looks out into the grey bay, waiting that moment before dressing himself into the New Year, not yet knowing that God is about to speak.

He had always painted. On summer evenings after the grass was cut, he might sit at the end of the garden with a sketchpad and pencils, drawing and cleaning lines as the light died and boys kicked a ball down the street. As an eight-year-old boy with freckles and poor eyes, I would look down from my bedroom window before crawling under the blankets and feel in that still, angular figure at the end of the garden something as pure, peaceful, and good as a nighttime prayer. My mother would bring him tea. She admired his talent then, and although none of his pictures ever decorated the walls of our little house, they were frequently gifts to relations and neighbours. I had heard him praised, and noted with a boy's pride the small WC that was his mark in the corner of the pictures, pushing my train along the carpet, driven with the secret knowledge that there was no one with a dad like mine.

At twelve, then, the world changed. My father came home in his grey suit one evening, sat to tea, and listened to my mother tell how all day she had waited for the man to come to repair the leak in the back kitchen roof, how I'd come home from school with a tear in the knee of my pants, how Mrs. Fitzgerald had called to say she couldn't play bridge this Thursday. He sat in that rumpled, angular quietness of his and listened. Was there a special glimmering of light in his eyes? I have long since told myself I remember there was. It cannot have been as simple and understated as I see it now, my father swallowing a second cup of milky tea, a slice of fruit loaf, and saying, "Bette, I'm going to paint."

At first, of course, she didn't understand. She thought he meant that evening and said, "Grand, William," and that she would tidy up after the tea and let him go along now and get changed.

"No," he said quietly, firmly, speaking the way he always spoke, making the words seem larger, fuller than himself, as if the amplitude of their meaning was directly related to the thinness of himself, as if he were all mind. "I'm finished working in the office," he said.

My mother had stood up and was already putting on her apron for the dishes. She was a petite woman with quick brown eyes. She stopped and looked at him and felt it register, and with electric speed then crossed the kitchen, squeezed my upper arm unintentionally hard, and led me from the table to go upstairs and do my lessons. I carried the unexploded fury of her response from the kitchen into the cool darkness of the hall and felt that gathering of blood and pain that was the bruise of God coming. I climbed six steps and sat down. I fingered the tear in the knee of my trousers, pushed the two sides of frayed corduroy back together as if they could mend. Then, my head resting on fists, I sat and listened to the end of my childhood.

"I'm going to paint full-time," I heard my father say.

There was a stunned pause, a silence after a blow. From beyond the door on my perch on the stairs I could see my mother's face, the flickering speed of her eyes in panic, the tights bustle of her energy suddenly arrested, stunned, until:

"You're not serious. William, you're not serious, say you're not..."

"I'll sell pictures. I've sold the car," he said.

Another pause, the silence loading like a gun.

"When? Why--how can you just--you're not serious."

"I am, Bette."

"I don't believe you. How ...?"

She paused. Perhaps she sat down. When she spoke again her voice was edged, swallowing the broken glass of tears. "Jesus, William. People don't just come home one evening and say they're not going back to work. You can't, you can't say that and mean it."

My father said nothing. He was holding his words in that narrow, thin chest of his, while lowering the great dome of his head into the palm of one hand. My mother's voice rose.

"Well, don't you think I should have some say in it? What about Nicholas? You just can't ..."

"I have to." His head had come up. The phrase thumped out on our life like a dead child, and a sick silence swam around it. Then, in a voice I hardly heard, and told myself later I hadn't, had imagined it in the half-dark of my bedtime when my prayers were said and the streetlamps edged the curtains with golden light.

"I have to do it. It's what God wants me to do."

The following days I came home from school to find the house in a state of transition. God had moved in overnight. The garage was full of the living-room furniture, the Venetian blinds had been taken down to let in more light, carpets were taken up, and a great board table was set up on concrete blocks in the corner where the television had been. Our telephone was disconnected and sat forlornly on the floor for a month inside the front hallway. My mother had taken to bed. I was given no explanation for this by my father and took the burned rashers and fried egg he cooked for my mother up the stairs to the bedside like some coded message crossing the drawbridge into the place of siege. A furniture lorry came and emptied the garage. Neighbours' children stood around the gateway and watched the old life of the house being taken away. "You've no telly," a boy jeered at me. "Coughlans have no telly!" "We don't want one," I shouted back, and went to stand between the makeshift goalposts of two jumpers thrown on the grass, holding up my hands and squinting at goals that went flashing past.

Then it was early summer. My mother got out of bed, my father went away on the first of all those trips in springtime and summer, disappearing into the yet blank canvas of the season and leaving my mother and me in the colourful but faintly rotting mess that was our house four weeks after God arrived.

"Your father, the painter, has left us," my mother would say to me, and then, with heavy irony, "Only God knows when he'll be back." Or: "Your father, the painter, doesn't believe in bills," when I came from the dentist mumbling and holding out a small brown envelope.

In a week we tidied the house. There was a small room off the hall that had kept its carpet and chairs, and it was to there my mother would retire in the evenings, sitting alone after I had gone to bed, watching the lights in the neighbours' houses and wondering what would become of the bills when the furniture money ran out. Across the hall was now my father's room. I had not, in that first month, stepped inside it. From moments when he opened the door, I had glimpsed rolls of canvas, timber stretchers, a little mountain of half-squeezed tubes of dark oil paint, others curved like dying slugs on the bare floor below the table. Now, as I lay in bed with the summer night never darkening, it was to that room my imagination took me, and in the first two months of my father the painter's absence I could imagine him in there, working away all the time, having never left us for a moment.

When the summer holidays came, my school report signalled the collapse of my education. I had failed everything but English, and in English was told I suffered from too much imagination. "An Elephant in Our House" had been the title of my essay.

As I was sitting across the kitchen table with my mother one Saturday morning, she told me in an urgent whisper that I was the little man of the house now. I had to work hard in school and get a good job and make money. I was twelve years and seven months old, and watched her pretty round face contort with the huge grief and anxiety God had put there. All her loveliness, the jolly nut-eyed smile and quick laugh that had ringed on my childhood were vanished that summer. She was suddenly a tired engine of a woman. Her hands held each other tightly; if one of them got free it flew up to her face, rubbed the side of her cheek, ran down, and held at the thin line of her lips. Our neighbours did not call or come in. And for a time our house seemed an island in the street, the place from which William Coughlan had gone off to paint. When I was sent down the road to the shop, always deliberately getting there in those last empty moments before it closed, wheezing bosomy Mrs. Heffernan turned and looked at me over her half-moon glasses and added a free bag of jellied sweets to the single tin of beans or soup my mother had asked for. "There you are, love," she'd say across the swirls of her perfume, "eat them all up yourself."

Within a month or so, at the turn in the road before the shop I had learned to toss my hair, pull out my shirttail, rub a little dirt on the sides of my neck and around my mouth. This never failed to bring Mrs. Heffernan from behind her counter, tut-tutting and breathing loudly, lifting the corner of her apron to her mouth and cleaning me up before giving me a bag of assorted apples and oranges to improve my health.

That first summer we were not sure if my father would return at all. My mother, of course, told me he would, and how happy we'd all be again, and how he'd be delighted to know I was reading schoolbooks all summer and becoming so clever. The more she told me that, the more I read, leaving aside the goalkeeper's gloves on the dresser beside the window and devouring books in a vain search for any boy who had a painter for a father.

The days were golden. It was a famous summer in Ireland. Our lawn mower had been sold and a daisied wildflower meadow sprang up in our front garden. The grass grew three feet tall, and sometimes in the evenings I went out and lay hidden inside it, feeling the soft waving motion of its sea around me and above me and watching the blue of the sky deepen to let out the star. I kept my eyes open and thought of my father, out there, painting the hood of night over me.

By the middle of August we had had two postcards. One from Leenane, County Mayo, one from Glecolumbkille in Donegal. Both of them told us he was doing well, working hard at painting. Both of them said he would be home soon. They were put, message outwards, on the windowsill next to the table in the kitchen, and in the mornings before I went back to school I read and reread them, sitting with a mug of milk-rationed tea and, a little anxiously, fingering the grey patch on the knee of my trousers.

Then, on the first wet school morning of September, I came downstairs and heard banging and knocking sounds in my father's room across the hall. He had come back during the night, a thin figure with a hat and a small bag, sloping up the path to knock on his own front door. My mother must have thought him a beggar or a thief. She heard him knocking and didn't move from her bed, half-imagining she dreamt the long-awaited sounds that had woken her sleep. When he let himself in around the back and she heard him move through the kitchen and across the bare floor of the hall, she knew it was him. He left his bag at the bottom of the stairs and came up to the bedroom. He looked in on me, I imagine, imagining too his long-fingered cool hand reaching across the bedroom dark to smooth my hair. Then, backing out, from the dark of the room to the dark of the landing to open the bedroom door. A figure in a drenched raincoat and dripping hat, he stood in the boots that had brought him from the west and looked at my mother. He was expecting insults, curses, any kind of coldness. She propped herself on one elbow to look at him and was a moony whiteness in her nightdress on the sheets. There was a moment she waited to be certain she wasn't dreaming, then, "Thank God," she said, and held out her arms to him coming.

I didn't know all this yet, of course. That damp morning I heard the noises in his room and thought in a flash of panic we were selling his things. I opened the door to look in and found him banging away, making a large frame with stretchers. He didn't see or hear me. I opened my mouth to call out his name but found the sound gone. Instead, gaping in the doorway, I watched him, how he seemed to be bent over, lost in the concentration of making, banging away at the wood like some still, frozen figure in a painting, heedless of all the world clamouring past. I stepped away and closed the door. I went into the kitchen and made my breakfast in silence with swirls of terror and joy inside me. When I opened my mouth to eat, I felt them rush upwards and gag me; my face bulged. A stream of unvoiced words gushed around. Had he come back, then? Was life to resume order and peace once more, or was he frantically banging the stretchers apart and not together. Was his painting all over? Had God spoken again?

My eyes read the postcards on the windowsill as they had done for weeks now, and then I felt his hand alight upon my shoulder.

"Dad," I said and, turning, felt burst in tears the watery balloon of emotion. Onto the damp turpentine smell of his thin chest I clung and cried, until at last he patted my back and held me out from him. He looked me up and down, and dabbing the tears with the fraying sleeve of my grey jumper, I hoped he could see the summer of study glowing off me. I hoped he could see how I had become the little man of the house, how I had fooled Mrs. Heffernan into pounds of fruits and sweets, and how I knew all along that he would come back to us.

Holding me back from him, he left those blue flecks of his eyes examine me for an age. His hair had grown long and in the morning light seemed white not grey. Even his eyebrows seemed lightened. A pale translucence was in him now, so that the more I looked at him, the more he seemed to disappear, to be a quality of light not a person, to be what I had begun to imagine was something like God.

"No need to go to school this week," he said. "What do you say? All right?"

Of course it was all right. It was marvellous. Mother came down from her bed in a green dress I had never seen. She sent me to the shops for potatoes and carrots, and I came back with a turnip, too.

My father had sent his summer's paintings by train to Dublin, and so later that morning he took me with him to meet them at the station. It is the first real journey into the city that I remember, sitting upstairs on the double-decker bus in the front seat with him branches of sycamore and chestnut trees brushing against the window, how they loosed their leaves behind us onto the little housed roads along the way. I put my hands on my knees and forgot about the patch, turning a glance at the still silent figure of my father. I could not say he looked happy to be back among us. He was a man of such thin bare stillness that his emotions themselves seemed to fall lightly into the day, as soft and soundless as little swirls of unseen leaves spiralling down in the half-dark of autumn afternoons. You didn't see his feelings, but somehow noticed a great littering of them all around you in the aftertraces when he was gone. Just so then, I can say he hated the city. Something in him despised the fact that he had been born there, that there he had gone daily to work in an office and wasted so many days of light.

From him on that late-morning bus journey I took my own anger at the city. What a leafless grey fright it was, a huge changing puzzle of concrete muddled with little hurrying lines of people in brown coats and wet faces. I wanted to hold his hand when we stepped from the bus, but didn't, tucking cold fists deep into the pockets of my duffel coat and trying to match the long, purposeful slap of his strides. He had not shaven in over a week and his face was finely silvered with beard, the wisps of his white hair blew sideways in a little wind to show pink patches of his skull. He wore no hat down the streets and caught the eyes of passersby along the quays, as if the oddity of his looks, long hair nearly to his shoulders and those blue flints of eyes, was a guarantee of some celebrity. I think he took note of nothing along the way to the station, not the wail of the sticky-mouth baby in its mother's arm or the oily splash that an incoming bus painted across both our trouser legs. He was, I imagined, like me, and my mother back at the house, picturing the pictures. Perhaps he was already there, in the open landscape of browns, greens, and purples, standing in the places where day after day he had tried to hold and lay the coloured light on the canvas.

We entered the great windy arch of the railway station and my heart leapt at the sight of the trains. At a railing before an engine he told me I could stand and look while he went to see about his packages.

The slow heavy arrival of the trains, uniforms, loud distorted announcements, place-names from out there beyond the end of the long platforms.

"Right, then."

The back seat and boot of a taxi were already loaded with a series of brown papered canvases. We crowded into the front seat next to the driver. I sat upon my father's sharp knees and he leaned forward and rubbed the haw of our excitement off the windscreen, leaving us a small smudged circular view of the streets as we sped along. I was full of pride then; these paintings we were ferrying home were to be the trophies of the summer's grief. My mother would look at them and clap and raise her hands to her mouth. The paintings would all be sold in a week, we'd have carpet in the hall and a red car in the garage. I bubbled with the soapy happiness of it all as the car weaved its way into the quiet serpentine estates of semi-detached houses, where all the men had gone to work and all the children were locked in school.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Several love stories unfold in the course of the novel. Compare Nicholas and Isabel's story with the courtships of Muiris and Margaret, William and Bette, and Isabel and Peader. Do you think this kind of fated love occurs in real life?

2. What purpose do the love letters from Nicholas to Isabel serve? Compare those letters with the love letters between other characters. Have you written or received love letters? How did they affect the relationship?

3. How do Nicholas's and Isabel's relationships with their parents affect their relationship? How do the parents' relationships affect their relationships with their children and their reactions to their children's love relationships? Is one kind of love-romantic or familial-more powerful than the other?

4. It is not until Part VI, page 217, that Nicholas discusses meeting Isabel. Why did the author choose to bring the two together when he did? Why does he choose not to describe their actual meeting-just the aftermath?

5. When I was twelve years old God spoke to my father for the first time. God didn't say much. He told my father to be a painter, and left it at that, returning to a seat amongst the angels and watching through the clouds over the grey city to see what would happen next. What do these opening lines say about the role of God and religion in the characters' lives? Are the characters in control of their own destinies, or are they subject to larger forces?

6. Compare that view with this passage from the last chapter: There was in the air that moment a rare feeling of healing, of things lifting and coming together, of the story being carried suddenly forwards, the great whoosh on which everything suddenly rises and flows, and you know a great spirit somewhere is watching down. The final line of the book states that "the plots of God and Love came together and were the same thing." Has the author's view of the influence of God changed through the course of the novel? Have the characters'? Has yours?

7. The book opens with William leaving his family, following, he believes, a command from God. But the pain this brings to his wife and son is immeasurable. How is it possible to balance responsibilities of family and home with your own, more personal, desire for fulfillment? Are you forced to give that up when you marry? When you become a parent?

8. William believes he is called by God to paint. Do you believe he was really called by God? If he was called by God, what was the point of his destroying his life's work along with himself?

9. All the love relationships (parent and child, brother and sister, husband and wife) in this book bring an incredible amount of pain into the characters' lives. Do you think this pain is necessary in order for them to experience joy?

10. Were you surprised by Sean's miraculous recovery? How does it connect with Nicholas's arrival on the island in search of his father's painting? How does it connect with bringing Nicholas and Isabel together? What brought on Sean's illness? What brought him out of it?

11. Nature, and in particular the weather, plays a key role in this book. How does the weather affect the characters? The plot?

12. In this book the creation of art is a powerful motivator-and a force of destruction. Do creation and destruction necessarily go hand in hand? Does the creation of art require suffering and sacrifice? What does it mean to have the artist ultimately destroy the creations he has suffered (and made others suffer) so much for?

13. William's paintings tear his family apart. But one of his paintings also ultimately brings Nicholas and Isabel together. Discuss this dual role in the novel.

14. The author condenses the happy ending into one paragraph at the end of the novel. What purpose do you think that serves?

15. Much of what the author describes in this book is tragic. But it is also a sweeping love story. What was your emotional response to the book? Did you find it depressing? Uplifting?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2004

    Great love story

    Beautifully written. The story draws you in and creates inner emotion in the reader. I recommend it for those who enjoy romance novels that actually have depth and poetry in the written word.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2003

    Emotional, Really get's ya 'right here'

    I picked this book off the shelf of the library randomly and without any background of the auther or the contents. I was surprised at the emotion in the language and how the images unfolded to me in somewhat of a painted canvas type form. Although I didn't enjoy the story, I emmensly enjoyed the peotry and emotion that I read. So even though it didn't really fancy me, if your one for happy endings and romance, this is your type. Beautifully written.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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