The Glass Ocean

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"An adventure of dreamlike momentum and romantic intensity, brought alive by a storyteller with uncanny access to the Victorians, not only to the closely-woven texture of their days but also to the dangerous nocturnal fires being attended to in their hearts."

"The Glass Ocean is that rarest of things, a historical novel, or at least a novel set ...

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The Glass Ocean: A Novel

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"An adventure of dreamlike momentum and romantic intensity, brought alive by a storyteller with uncanny access to the Victorians, not only to the closely-woven texture of their days but also to the dangerous nocturnal fires being attended to in their hearts."

"The Glass Ocean is that rarest of things, a historical novel, or at least a novel set in history, that is also a work of art. Lori Baker is a captivating story-teller, and her prose has the flash and fire of molten glass."

"I write in retrospect, from the vantage of a distant shore." Flame-haired, six-foot-two in stocking feet, eighteen-year-old Carlotta Dell’oro recounts the lives of her parents—solitary glassmaker Leopoldo Dell’oro and beautiful, unreachable Clotilde Girard—and discovers in their loves and losses, their omissions and obsessions, thecircumstances of her abandonment and the weight of her inheritance. Thomas Pynchon calls debut novelist Lori Baker “a storyteller with uncanny access to the Victorians, not only to the closely woven texture of their days but also to the dangerous nocturnal fires being attended to in their hearts.”

Carlotta’s story begins in 1841, when Leo and Clotilde meet aboard the Narcissus, on an expedition led by Clotilde’s magnanimous, adventuring father. Leo is commissioned to draw the creatures of the deep sea, but is bewitched instead by golden Clotilde, beginning a devotion that will prove inescapable. Clotilde meanwhile sees only her dear papa, but when he goes missing she is pushed to Leo, returning with him to the craggy English shores of Whitby, the place to which Leo vowed he would never return.

There they form an uneasy coexistence, lost to one another. The events of the Narcissus haunt them, leaving Clotilde grieving for her father, while Leo becomes possessed by the work of transforming his sea sketches into glass. But in finding his art he surrenders Clotilde, and the distance between the two is only magnified by the birth of baby Carlotta.

Years have passed, and Carlotta is now grown. A friend from the past comes to Whitby, and with his arrival sets into motion the Dell’oros’ inevitable disintegration. In hypnotic, inimitable prose Lori Baker’s The Glass Ocean transforms a story of family into something as otherworldly and mesmerizing as life beneath the sea itself.

Chicago Tribune
"Baker is gifted with a surreal, descriptive imagination, and her Victorian world is densely populated with the kind of objects you want to pick up and examine: kaleidoscopes, mechanical birds, glass eyes, hanging orchids. The novel is a cabinet of curiosities stuffed to the gills with fascinating things."

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Baker’s first novel (after two story collections, including Crash and Tell) conjures the strange Victorian world, both lush and barren, of 18-year-old orphan Carlotta Dell’Oro. Over six feet tall, fiery-haired, and filled with longing for the parents who were distant and full of mystery even when alive, Carlotta imagines the story of their lives and her own existence. Two decades before, when young Leo Dell’Oro sails as ship’s artist with acclaimed naturalist Felix Girard on his expedition to the New World, Felix’s gorgeous, clever daughter, Clotilde, teases the awkward Leo and captures his heart. When Felix disappears in a small boat, Clotilde goes with Leo to England, where she pines for her father, convinced he is alive, and where Leo becomes fascinated with glassmaking. Meanwhile, his new master, Thomas Argument, visits Clotilde daily, offering precious gifts and adoration that Leo can’t express. Thomas drops Clotilde, however, when it becomes clear that she’s pregnant, and Leo switches allegiances, joining Argument’s competitor. Carlotta imagines her own development as “a battle between my mother and me,” and feels sympathy for her mother having to give birth to a “cruel-eyed monster” such as Carlotta. When Carlotta arrives, she hovers in the corners of her parents’ attention, forgotten among the poorly preserved creatures in Felix’s dusty collection, until her parents’ obsessions soon draw them away, leaving her behind. Baker’s unforgettable tale is rich with nuance, buried passions, and Victorian oddities, offering passage into an extraordinary world. Agent: Melanie Jackson, Melanie Jackson Agency. (Aug. 5)
From the Publisher
Publishers Weekly (starred):
"Baker's unforgettable tale is rich with nuance, buried passions, and Victorian oddities, offering passage into an extraordinary world."

Booklist (starred):
“[A] hauntingly beautiful debut... Gorgeously written and elegantly evocative, Baker’s prose brings the Dell’oros’ world to life and drives home the tragedy of their fruitless longings.”

Thomas Pynchon:
"An adventure of dreamlike momentum and romantic intensity, brought alive by a storyteller with uncanny access to the Victorians, not only to the closely-woven texture of their days but also to the dangerous nocturnal fires being attended to in their hearts."
“Carlotta, the hero of debut novelist Lori Baker's The Glass Ocean, was born to love-lorn seafarers whose story she learns slowly and achingly. As facts surface, the past haunts Carlotta, and with the dream-like atmosphere of the novel, the reader is haunted, too. But the setting and the rich characterization of Carlotta's artist father and beautiful mother propelled me through the pages; Baker has a gift for narrating in detail, and the intensity of the love story kept me sucked in.”

Largehearted Boy:
“An evocative and transporting debut novel, an impressive work of historical fiction.”

John Banville, author of The Sea:
"The Glass Ocean is that rarest of things, a historical novel, or at least a novel set in history, that is also a work of art. Lori Baker is a captivating story-teller, and her prose has the flash and fire of molten glass."

Harry Mathews, author of The Conversions:
"The Glass Ocean is breathtakingly good – as though Jean Rhys had come back from the dead to outdo Wide Sargasso Sea. So completely satisfying (as well as satisfyingly disturbing) that at the end one doesn’t wish it would go on forever because the ending itself is so beautifully right. Hat, shirt, and shoes off to a wizard of fiction." 

Joanna Scott, author of Arrogance:
The Glass Ocean is a rare accomplishment, its fictional world so delicately and vividly wrought that the narrative takes on the force of an emergent secret history. It is a haunting, beautiful novel, full of mysteries and illuminations.”

Library Journal
Set in the Victorian world but neither Dickensian nor steampunk, this debut novel by Bobst Literary Award winner Baker is narrated by red-haired, six-foot-plus Carlotta Dell'oro, who relates the story of her parents' lives. On an 1841 expedition aboard the Narcissus, during which he's expected to sketch sea creatures, Leonardo Dell'oro falls for remote, lovely Clotilde Girard, whose father funded the voyage. Leonardo brings Clotilde to remote Whitby, England, when her father goes missing, but they aren't the perfect couple. Eventually, Leonardo apprentices himself to a glassblower, learning to transform his sea sketches into fragile, fantastical forms. Love, art, and history; who can resist?
Kirkus Reviews
Baker's ambitious debut novel features a Victorian setting, mismatched lovers, dysfunctional families, doomed journeys of discovery, and the art and manufacture of glass. Our narrator and protagonist is Carlotta Dell'oro, a too-tall redhead, a ginger, only daughter of eccentric parents Leopold and Clotilde. The novel concentrates on their story, how they meet in the rooms of Felix Girard, eccentric explorer and collector, father of Clotilde. Leo falls for her, it seems, on sight, but he is diffident; obtuse but obsessive. Leo joins a cast of caricatures aboard the Narcissus for a journey to the Yucatan to study and collect specimens. This is Girard's journey, and Clotilde comes along. She concertizes on a spinet in her room, the men in her orbit, planets around a vain, blonde sun. Much happens. Clotilde and Leo find themselves together, back in dank, cold Whitby, England, married. At a loose end, low on funds, unable to relate to his narcissistic wife, Leo becomes an apprentice in the glasswork of Thomas Argument. The marriage a failure, the angular Argument becomes the hypotenuse in the Dell'oro love triangle. Leo immerses himself in the intricacies of re-creating ephemeral ocean creatures in glass. There are dazzling passages, and the concrete details of glass manufacture reign in the mannered prose. Is it the setting? Or the fact that every character shades into caricature, even the narrator? The prose often goes over the top and stays there. Baker has gone all-in to capture Carlotta's voice. This decision is admirable and risky. It is excessive, expressionistic. One will either love it or tire of it.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594205361
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/1/2013
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.16 (d)

Meet the Author

LORI BAKER is the author of three story collections, including Crazy Water: Six Fictions, which won the Mamdouha S. Bobst Literary Award for emerging writers. She has taught fiction writing, journalism, and composition at Brown University, Boston College, and Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. She lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island.

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Interviews & Essays

From the Author

In 1853, Leopold Blaschka, a young artist, jeweler and glassmaker from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) traveled to America for business and for the sake of his health; when his ship was becalmed in the Atlantic, he began, as artists will, to draw. "We are on a sailing ship in the Atlantic Ocean, immobilized because of the calm," Blaschka wrote. "It is a beautiful night in May. Hopefully we look over the darkness of the sea, which is as smooth as a mirror: In various places there emerges all around a flashlike bundle of light beams, like thousands of sparks, that form bundles of fire and bundles of other bright lighting spots, as if they are surrounded by mirrored stars."

What Blaschka was describing, in this letter translated from the German by scholar Henri Reiling of the University of Utrecht, were glowing jellyfish, emerging on the dark surface of the night sea.

This "indescribably beautiful scene," as Blaschka put it, was also, for him, the starting point, the cold spark of inspiration, for what would become a life's work. Carefully drawing the creatures that were gathered during that journey, Blaschka, on his return home, began to attempt to recreate what he had seen in glass.

The result, over the course of what would become many years work and a livelihood for himself and for his son, Rudolph, were hundreds of models of marine animals, eventually reproduced and sold to museums around the world. The Blaschkas modeled plants, too, and are perhaps most well-known today as the creators of the Ware Collection of Glass Flowers, held at Harvard University's Museum of Natural History, a popular exhibit that draws many thousands of visitors annually. Thus the Blaschka sea creatures continue to exert their fascination even today, despite the fact that science has moved on, with the means to observe, collect, preserve, and photograph specimens that the Blaschkas and their contemporaries could never have imagined. Still the Blaschkas' sea creations are held in museum collections around the world and are the subject of articles, books, blogs, poems, essays, photojournalism, and now even a film, "Fragile Legacy," by Cornell University scientists and researchers, that will seek to document how the Blaschka animals are faring in today's oceans -- a scientific "full circle" that Leopold Blaschka would certainly have appreciated.

What is it about these glass creatures that exerts such fascination? Their beauty, certainly—and the obsessive craftedness of their creation, so selfless that, in a sense, style is completely subsumed. In these works of art, these most made of man-made objects, the hand of the artist is everywhere, and nowhere. It is hard to believe that somebody could have fabricated these, so organic do they appear. More than one hundred years later, the Blaschkas sea creatures -- their squids and octopuses, their jellyfish and sea slugs and snails and anemones and starfish, still seem to pulse with life. And yet they are not alive. They are like snowflakes: glittering, gorgeous, more complicated than we can rightly comprehend. And as ephemeral.

It is such a changeless thing that we do not dare in its construction to make a mistake; it becomes eternal, Leopold Blaschka wrote of his work in glass.

Maybe this is what draws us back, again and again, to Leopold Blaschka's creatures: the haunting and crystallized effort to stop time, to capture what cannot be captured, to preserve that which is quickly passing, to hold on to what will very soon be gone.

This is the aspect of their work that fascinated and inspired me to write my novel, The Glass Ocean. Though based only loosely on the Blaschkas' lives, The Glass Ocean is very much inspired and informed by their beautiful, mysterious, and confounding body of work. In it, a glassmaker, Leo, attempts through his own, obsessive artistic project, to stop time—literally to stop heartbreak in its tracks, as his marriage dissolves around him. This takes place against the background of 19th century England, a time of social and scientific ferment and upheaval, a time when new technologies and discoveries were changing the nature of work, families, and religion. It was a time of excitement and exploration, but also of anxiety for societies, families, and individuals. Though my research for the novel was initially spurred by my fascination with the Blaschkas' glass creations, as I dug more deeply into the time period, I became equally fascinated by the sense of exploration and wonder, combined with so much change during this time, and I thought a great deal about how this might have affected people in their day-to-day lives—and couldn't help but see parallels to the last twenty years, with computers changing the way we all relate to and connect (or fail to connect) with each other. So that in the end The Glass Ocean is not only a novel about the sources of artistic inspiration, it is also a story about connection and disconnection, the loosening of ties within families and between individuals.

In the end though, of course every story is personal in some way, and for me, writing The Glass Ocean was a chance to indulge my own love of the sea and sea creatures. Growing up outside Boston in a family that made frequent visits to Cape Cod (my dad's family are old Cape Codders from way back), I hoped in this novel to capture, or recapture, at least a little of my own childhood wonder and love of the ocean—something I am reminded of, again and again, whenever I look at the Blashckas' mesmerizing glass creations.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2014

    Too many words are just as bad as not enough. My goodness every

    Too many words are just as bad as not enough. My goodness every thought in this book was a page long, it was like being stuck in mud. I disliked this book, should have been a short story not a novel. Way, way too many descriptive words for a single though. Author has a good use of vocabulary I appreciate that, but this book was not entertaining. Doesn't get off of the ground at all, rather boring.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2013

    I really loved The Glass Ocean. I was drawn to it first by the m

    I really loved The Glass Ocean. I was drawn to it first by the musicality of the language, the play in her sentences and paragraphs. I also found that motifs and themes recurred in much the way that they do in a musical score.

    When Thomas Pynchon praises Baker for sharing "the dangerous nocturnal fires attended to in their hearts," he puts his finger on the pulse of the book -- the dreamlike internal worlds of these characters in the face of an external reality of abandonment, disappointment and the greyness of day to day life.

    The characters are obsessed with seeking what has been irrevocably lost, for making the inanimate come to life, for achieving the flawless surface, conjuring life through the making of art. The narrator's father, Leo, becomes transfixed by the idea of capturing in glass the most transitory sea creatures, and then entwines in them in minute form the initials of his ever-receding wife. He takes apart the mechanical toys given to his wife by his rival for her affections -- in order to put those mechanisms to use in a secret and magical glass work, through which he can perhaps suspend his love in a lifelike artifice. Art and life entwined, each a construction.

    The novel as a literary form is also an artifice. And Baker, like her character, has taken apart its construct and then has put it back together in a new way. There's a lovely reference to Italo Calvino in the fourth chapter's title - acknowledging a literary tradition of making through artifice a way to look more deeply into the human soul. It really is, as John Banville says, "a work of art."

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