The Girl in the Green Glass Mirror

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Hailed for her “remarkably accomplished and poignant work” (Washington Post), acclaimed author Elizabeth McGregor returns with a haunting love story about two lost souls brought together by chance—and bonded forever by a mystery that transcends madness, tragedy, and time itself....

Catherine Sergeant is adept at going through the motions. After losing her parents at an early age, she buried her grief in the study of antiquities. Now, deserted by her husband without warning or ...

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Hailed for her “remarkably accomplished and poignant work” (Washington Post), acclaimed author Elizabeth McGregor returns with a haunting love story about two lost souls brought together by chance—and bonded forever by a mystery that transcends madness, tragedy, and time itself....

Catherine Sergeant is adept at going through the motions. After losing her parents at an early age, she buried her grief in the study of antiquities. Now, deserted by her husband without warning or explanation, she reports to work at Pearson’s auction house, exchanging pleasantries with colleagues, never revealing her pain. Cocooned in loneliness, she couldn’t be more surprised to find herself opening up to a total stranger—a new client, no less.

In widowed architect John Brigham, Catherine finds a kindred spirit. The two share a fascination with Richard Dadd, an early Victorian painter who lived most of his life incarcerated in an insane asylum. There he produced his most stunning works—works that have deeply moved Catherine and now draw her inexorably to John. Soon the two are falling in love.

The reawakening of passion in a woman like Catherine is more than John ever hoped for. But when she discovers his possession of an unknown Dadd, it is just the first in a series of revelations that leave her wondering if she knows this man who has shown her life’s true beauty. For John, it may be a last chance to free himself from the priceless secrets he has been harboring too long. Secrets about a soul laid bare on canvas, and a legacy that could shatter all he holds dear in the space of a heartbeat…

A compelling blend of human drama, art, and history, this intriguing tale casts a spell that lingers far beyond the final page—and celebrates the strength we all must find within our hearts.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Another complicated, multi-layered plot from English novelist McGregor (The Ice Child, 2001), this time concerning an upscale art appraiser obsessed with the work of a mad Victorian artist. Catherine Sergeant left a promising position at Bergens in London some years ago when her usually dependable husband, Robert, took an accounting job in the countryside. Now working at a fancy auction house in Dorset, she feels baffled and betrayed by Robert's sudden, inexplicable, but clearly intentional disappearance. A subtle, intelligent writer, McGregor is not satisfied with dwelling on the domestic crises of a newly abandoned wife. Catherine has entertained a fixation throughout her art career with Victorian painter Richard Dadd, an early genius who was incarcerated in mental asylums for 40 years after cutting his father's throat with a penknife. Grieving over Robert, Catherine meets John Brigham, an eccentric, wealthy architect 20 years her senior who lives in a gorgeous Arts and Crafts cottage in the area. Grandson of the artist's attendant at Bedlam insane asylum, John happens to know quite a bit about Dadd and even possesses a secret cache of his work. Startlingly, Catherine reminds the architect of a character in one of Dadd's paintings. To further confound the rather contrived plot, John suffers from a mysterious, romantically fatal heart ailment, adding urgency to his affair with Catherine. The novel would disintegrate in less capable hands, but McGregor deliberately builds her narrative and manages to invest it with suspense by alternating between the contemporary story and grim glimpses inside Bedlam in the mid-19th century as Dadd paints his fanciful masterpieces. The author also offersjust enough detail about chilly, callow Robert to attract and repel. Ultimately, however, the promise of John's jealous, unstable sister, Helen, to reveal family skeletons stuffed in the closet (or, in this case, under the house's floorboards) throws the story verily over the top. An intriguing, ambitious literary work that will reward more patient readers.
From the Publisher
“Here is an absorbing, well-written mix of romance and melodrama that reserves its most passionate passages for the role of art in our lives…. McGregor carefully and delicately weaves into her plot the idea that art is a conduit for the emotions, casting it variously as a therapeutic tool and as an expression of our darkest impulses. The author is at her most lyrically persuasive when detailing her overarching theme: a life without art is not life at all.”—Booklist

“An intriguing, ambitious literary work that will reward."—Kirkus Reviews

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553586725
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/30/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.12 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth McGregor is the acclaimed author of The Ice Child and A Road Through the Mountains. She lives with her daughter, Kate, on the south coast of England, in Dorset, where she is working on her next novel.

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Read an Excerpt

The Girl in the Green Glass Mirror

By Elizabeth McGregor

Random House

Elizabeth McGregor
All right reserved.

ISBN: 055380359X

Chapter One


It was only a week after her husband had left her that Catherine Sergeant went to a wedding.

It was a cold and bright spring day, a blue sky, frost on the deep grain of the church door. She purposely arrived late, to avoid the conversations; but she couldn't avoid them afterward, when the congregation emerged.

The photographer took the bridal couple close to the trees, to be photographed in the sunlight under a thin veil of blackthorn blossom.

"Catherine," a voice said.

She turned. It was Amanda and Mark Pearson.

"Why didn't you tell us that you were invited?" they demanded. "Why didn't you mention it? We could have come together."

"I didn't decide until the last minute," she said.

Amanda had looked around her. "Where is Robert?" she asked.

"He's gone away."


There was a moment. "Yes," she said.

She moved from person to person, friends of friends. Fortunately, this was not a family wedding; Catherine was a peripheral guest. There were some people whom she didn't know, and who asked her nothing.

She moved to the very edge of the crowd and leaned for a moment on the wall. She was wearing red, and she thought suddenly how very inappropriate it was, this celebratory color, this color of triumph. She felt anything but triumphant. She felt disoriented. It seemed incredible to her now that she had come at all; got dressed this morning--got in the car. Driven here, in a new red suit, wearing new shoes. Incredible that she had even gone out this week and bought the shoes. Sat in a shop, wrote a check. Incredible that she had gone through the motions.

The routine things. Working, driving, buying, eating, sleeping.

Had she slept? Four hours, perhaps. Never more each night in the last seven days.

Looking out over the valley, this country valley folded in with pasture, dissected only by one road, and that road passing through what seemed now to be a gray cloud of leafless beech on the hill, she felt excruciatingly tired.

She looked down at the wall.

The corrugated color, pale green and acid yellow and gray, of the lichen on the limestone; that was animation of sorts. She focused on the colors. Beyond the wall, the graves. The angle of the April light against the graves.

"Alexander Seeley, born 18 November 1804, his Wife Claudia Anne."

The snowdrops forming a white square. The blackbird eyeing her from the neighboring plot, perched on a stone angel with great folded wings, feather upon feather.

A couple nearby had brought a hamper. They were coming through the crowd laughing, holding up the wicker basket. Setting it down again on the path. Unbuckling the straps, they brought out champagne and glasses.

Beyond them, Amanda was beckoning her, holding up a glass.

It's not difficult at all, Catherine told herself.

Your husband is away, working. It's a very simple explanation. Simple. Plausible. You've come on your own out of necessity. But tomorrow, or the next day, he'll come home.

This is just a piece of time with a wrinkle in it, like a sheet wrinkled from sleep. Time had wrinkled away from habit, from predictability, and had become--only for a while--unfathomable, like the experience of a dream, where days and weeks become mixed. Living through this was just a matter of coming to terms with the change. Hours that buck and race or slow to a crawl.

Tomorrow or the next day, he'll come home.

Repeat it, repeat it.

Saying it makes it so.


It was 8 a.m. when she got to the auction rooms on Monday morning.

Pearsons occupied a huge barn of a building in a country town that had once been known for its silk weaving two centuries before. Now all that was left of the silk was the single row of cottages on the main street, lavishly embellished above the doors with a scroll bearing the initials of the old company, and the Pearsons hall behind them, with its pink-yellow brick.

Behind the town were the chalk hills; open downland with shadows of old hedges, even of medieval fields. Sometimes in the last light of a winter day, as she drove over the tops toward the town, she could see the ghosts of those old furrows.

Catherine passed now under the archway of the front door: Georgian columns, a tiled floor of white acanthus on blue. She took off her coat as she went, glad to be inside. It was still bitterly cold. Just as she draped it over her arm, she felt for the cell phone in the pocket. Took it out for a moment to check that it was turned on. No messages. No text. She put it back.

Beyond the acanthus floor, Pearsons was far more prosaic: two small offices to either side, and past them a vast ceilingless room, the timber joists of the roof revealed. The hall was packed this morning, with barely an inch of floor space showing. "Victorian and General" was the sale title, and it encompassed a vast variety of objects, the remains of scores of lives. Dealers were already in, eyeing the goods: she recognized the usual faces, the diehards already scribbling in their catalogues.

She paused here, looking around herself at the variety. Nearest the door was a metamorphic library chair of modest beauty, decorated with floral inlay, its steps stored beneath the seat; past it, by way of contrast, was a peeling chest of drawers that had never been beautiful even on the day it was made. She edged down the narrow aisle, past desks and porcelain, empty frames, Lloyd Loom, ivory and silver locked in the one glass-fronted cabinet; the skeletons of clocks, the gray-on-sepia of faded watercolors. As she passed a cardboard box full of vinyl records, she glanced down at the cover of the first one. Tchaikovsky's second piano concerto. The illustration on the sleeve was a damask rose. She looked at the rose for a moment, then turned her head.

And it was then that she saw the painting.

The face of the girl was looking down at her. It was a familiar portrait of a young woman seated on a chair; a woman in a white dress, her left hand holding the edge of the seat of the chair, her right hand curled in her lap. Behind her, the draped curtains were yellow, and there was a suggestion of a street. Muted blues.

Catherine's eye ranged over it again. If you regarded it critically, not a great deal was anatomically correct. The right arm was foreshortened, the fingers only outlined. The left hand was almost bulky. Neither was the frame of the chair absolutely right; the back curved awkwardly, as if added by chance. And yet, when she stepped back, the picture was perfect. Something in the failings made it wonderful.

Mark Pearson was at the desk at the farthest end of the hall.

"Catherine," he called.

"It's here," she called, pointing at the painting. "Why is it here?"

He got up and walked toward her. "He brought it in himself."

"Mr. Williams?" she asked, astonished.

"Yes. On Saturday. I couldn't turn it down."

No one would. The portrait was by a Scottish colorist.

"It doesn't belong here," she said. "It belongs in the arts sale next month."

Mark waved his hand. "I told him, I told him," he said. "You know the obstreperous old coot."

"But he didn't want to sell. He told me so."

"I knew he would, though," Mark told her. "Calling you back to the house--what is it? Four or five times?"

She frowned. "I can't believe it," she murmured. "I don't understand. He loved this painting."

Mark smiled. "Maybe he fell out of love with it," he replied. "It happens."

She shook her head.

As she walked back to the office, a dealer saw her coming and gave her his leering smile. She good-humoredly raised her eyebrows at him. He was sixty. She guessed twenty stone. Gray hair combed over a bald spot.

"Hey, Catherine," he said, looking her up and down.

"Hello, Stuart. How are you?"

"Fine display you've got." And he started laughing.

She went into the office, threw her coat on a table. "Brad Pitt, eat your heart out," she murmured.

She sat down and stared at the door she had closed behind her. She pressed her hands to her face, and the roses bloomed suddenly back at her, roses from the record cover, with their velvet petals, so sensuous to the touch. A bank of red roses in a garden, long ago. A bouquet of red roses in a cellophane wrapper, not so very long ago. Forty-two red roses of overpowering scent, of asphyxiating luxury.

Why did you send these?

Because I've known you forty-two days.

The door opened.

She took down her hands.

"What's the matter?" Mark Pearson asked.

"Nothing," she said.

"What did Stuart say?"

"It wasn't Stuart. It wasn't anything," she said.

He came round the side of the desk. "Remind me what you look like when it is something."

She smiled, and opened her calendar.

He put down a cup of coffee in front of her. "Take note of the cup," he said. "Minton."

"Thanks. I'm touched. What's this?" she asked, pointing at a calendar entry for the next morning.

He perched himself on the edge of the desk. "A man who rang up yesterday."

"Bridle Lodge?"

"Somewhere near West Stratford." He peeled a yellow Post-it from the edge of the page. "I wrote the directions down."

"Don't you want me here?"

He drained his own coffee and looked her in the eye. "Not with a face like a wet weekend, thank you."

She looked back at him. Mark, fifteen years her senior, was one of the kindliest men she had ever met. Kindly, and not simply kind, in an old-fashioned way, with courtesy and sweetness.

"What is it, really?" he asked.

She ought to have been able to tell him, of all people.

But she couldn't.

That night, she phoned Robert's mother.

She hadn't seen her in over a year. She sat in the kitchen, the phone in her hand for some minutes.

All around there was still the evidence of him. His magazines piled in the basket on the edge of the counter; his notes on the memo board: the chiropractor's appointment, the dry cleaning receipt. The coffee cup that he had used last Saturday night stood by itself on the board by the sink, where he had left it. She was too superstitious to move it.

When she eventually summoned the courage to dial, it rang for ages. She was about to hang up when Eva at last answered.

"It's Catherine," she said.

There was a pause. "Hello, Catherine," said Robert's mother.

"How are you?"

"I'm well, I suppose."

Another pause. "I know that this seems like a strange question," Catherine said. "But is Robert with you?"

"Robert? I haven't seen Robert for months."

"He didn't ring you?" Catherine asked. "Any time in the last week?"

"Robert doesn't ring me," his mother said. "For that matter, neither do you."

Catherine pressed the fingertips of her left hand hard into her palm. "There's been no letter?" she persevered.

"Catherine," Eva Sergeant replied, "what exactly is going on?"

"I don't know," Catherine said. "He left home."

"Left home?" Eva echoed. She sounded amused. "Have you had an argument?"

"No," she told her. "Nothing."

"There must have been an argument."

"There was nothing at all," Catherine responded. "I woke up on Sunday morning and he had gone. His clothes were gone. His money, cards, checkbook. His phone. Everything."

"You've tried his number?"

"Of course," she said. "I've tried it fifty times a day for the last five days. I've left messages."

"There's no need to raise your voice to me."

Catherine took a breath. "I'm sorry," she said.

There was a long silence.

Catherine imagined her in the five-story house. She could see Eva now, sitting at the basement kitchen table, the cigarettes next to her, the lighter in her hand. The house was always shuttered and closed. The upper rooms were faded, as if the house itself had drained the color out of the furnishings. Robert's mother kept the blinds drawn to preserve the carpets and furniture that she and Robert's father had brought back from the Far East, but, despite that, they still had a bleached look.

The kitchen was a relic of the 1950s, yet she gravitated there, to the warmth. What time was it? Catherine glanced up at her own clock. Six fifty.

"What is he doing?" Eva asked.

"I'm sorry?"

"Robert. What is he doing?"

"He's not at work . . ."

"But it's still the same job?"

"Yes." How could it be otherwise? Robert was wedded to his work. He was an accountant for a national company, based in a regional office in Salisbury. He drove for an hour each way, every day. He would set off at seven in the morning, always wanting to be the first there. Regularly, she suspected, he was the last to leave. She scoured her memory for some fragment from the last few weeks. Some mention of a client. But there was nothing.

But perhaps it was otherwise. Perhaps he had left his job. This spectacular possibility had never even occurred to her until this moment. The firm had told her that he was on vacation, but they could be covering for him, she guessed.

"Well, at least he hasn't been spirited away," Eva commented.

"What do you mean?"

She heard the sound of Eva lighting the cigarette, the intake of breath. "If he took everything, he intended to leave," Eva replied.

Replacing the phone in its cradle, Catherine stood up and went upstairs.

Only when she got to the bedroom did the full weight of Eva's insouciance hit her. She took off her clothes with a kind of savagery, got into the shower and let the water pour over her, turning up the temperature.


Excerpted from The Girl in the Green Glass Mirror by Elizabeth McGregor Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

With The Girl in the Green Glass Mirror, acclaimed novelist Elizabeth McGregor has crafted both a mesmerizing love story and an unforgettable portrait of one of Britain's most intriguing nineteenth-century painters. At the center of this tale are Catherine Sargeant, an antiques dealer whose husband has deserted her silently and suddenly, and John Brigham, a widowed architect who has become a new client of Catherine's. Awakening from deep loneliness, Catherine and John soon discover that their intense attraction to each other is matched by a subtle current of secrecy—including one secret whose value may be priceless. The mysteries revolve around Richard Dadd, an early Victorian painter who spent most of his life in England's notorious Bedlam asylum, where he produced stunning works that continue to fascinate collectors today.

Deftly weaving scenes of the contemporary art world with haunting chapters from history, McGregor gives us a novel of passion and possession, love and legacy. The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Elizabeth McGregor's The Girl in the Green Glass Mirror. We hope they will enrich your experience of this breathtaking novel.

1. What is the effect of the novel's prologue? Besides Richard Dadd, which of the novel's other characters experience exile?

2. How would you characterize Catherine and Robert's marriage? What drew them together? In your opinion, what is the true reason for Robert's departure?

3. How have Catherine and John each experienced love in the past? What enables them to begin to trust one another?

4. In what ways do art and architecture resonate with Catherine and John? Do they share a similar philosophy regarding the material world? Would John have kept the Dadd paintings for such a long time if they hadn’t been part of his family history?

5. What do Dadd's paintings indicate about his perception of the world? What do you visualize when you read Elizabeth McGregor's descriptions of them?

6. Discuss the book's title. Whose reflections do you believe appeared to the fictional Dadd? Was he seeing the future, or were the novel's contemporary characters imposing their own understanding of the past onto these images? What were your reactions to the use of photographs in "treating" the patients at the asylum? Do visual images capture reality?

7. Toward the end of Chapter Seven, John has a chance encounter with the architect Soane's house. Why is this such a disturbing encounter for him? What does it express about the nature of his love and grief for Claire?

8. How do you account for the differences between John and his sister, Helen? How do contemporary approaches to mental illness differ from those of the nineteenth century?

9. What does "The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke" express about the nature of rage as well as the nature of creativity? Does it differ from the imagery in "The Child’s Problem?" What makes them intriguing objects to John and Catherine?

10. In Chapter Seventeen, Mr. Williams ends his life. What had Catherine learned about her profession, and about human nature, from her interactions with him? Does this incident make John more or less inclined to trust her with "every priceless secret thing he had been entrusted with," as the last line of this chapter phrases it?

11. Researching the life of Richard Dadd makes for a fascinating supplement to the novel. Having begun his artistic career at age thirteen, he was accepted into the prestigious Royal Academy by the time he was twenty. His professors there commented on his gentleness and artistic promise, but in his mid-twenties he lost his sanity and became homicidal. Paired with the contemporary love story presented in The Girl in the Green Glass Mirror, what elements of tragedy and rebirth emerge?

12. Dadd arrives at Broadmoor at the end of Chapter Twenty-one feeling deeply unsettled and believing that "the real world, a thing of beauty, had to be guarded . . . shut up firmly against its parody." What significance do these lines have for Catherine and John at this point in the novel, as John's health worsens and Helen's jealousy is reaching a crescendo?

13. At the end of Chapter Twenty-five, Dadd paints his muse. What other muses appear in the novel? Who have been your muses, either in creativity or in other aspects of your life?

14. How has Catherine's understanding of love been transformed by the time of the novel's postscript?

15. McGregor's previous novel, A Road Through the Mountains, is also set in the art world and features a talented painter whose past secrets come to light after she is injured in a tragic accident. In what way does visual art create an enticing backdrop for exploring the lives of characters in a novel? What perspectives on fate and self-fulfillment do these two works offer?

16. Discuss any artifacts that have been handed down in your family. What significance do these items possess for you? What connections to your ancestry and personal history do they provide?

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    strong character study

    Art appraiser Catherine Sergeant thought their marriage was perfect until her husband Robert left her without warning just vanishing. Feeling betrayed and unable to confide in anyone even her friend and partner Amanda, she turns even deeper into her fixation, Victorian painter Richard Dadd, who spent four decades in Bedlam after slicing his father's throat with a knife that he insists Osiris told him to do to free his sire there he painted his masterpieces. --- That helps a bit, but not much as she still mourns the loss of her relationship. Fleeing from London to Dorset to find solace, Catherine meets architect John Brigham, two decades older than her. They find commonality when she learns he is the grandson of the attendant at the insane asylum that housed Dadd. He not only knows a lot of insider information on the crazed artist, but owns several works. John insists that Catherine resembles a character in one of the paintings he possesses. As they begin to have an affair, Catherine learns that her lover suffers from heart disease that will soon prove fatal. --- THE GIRL IN THE GREEN GLASS MIRROR is a remarkable tale that contains a strong lead protagonist and a powerful support cast in London and Dorset that enables further insight into Catherine or to a lesser degree John. A subplot that takes the audience inside 1840s Bedlam is a stunner that will horrify the audience. Though the climax starring John¿s sister Helen in a key role seems contrived fans of character driven novels that focus on the arts will appreciate Elizabeth McGregor¿s portrait of an obsessed woman in trouble. --- Harriet Klausner

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