Claire Marvelby John Burnham Schwartz
A young man and woman meet, love each other, and are consumed. It’s a story as old as romance itself, but in this enthralling novel John Burnham Schwartz tells it with heart-stopping new immediacy. In the middle of a rainstorm Julian Rose, a self-effacing Harvard graduate student, takes refuge beneath a girl’s yellow umbrella. The girl, the woman, is Claire Marvel, lovely, mercurial, mired in family tragedy. She is the last person someone like Julian should fall in love with. But he does.
What ensues is a great and difficult passion strewn with obstacles–not least those arising from Claire and Julian’s disparate characters. And as these young people find and lose each other, then seek each other anew, Schwartz places romantic love within an entire continuum of attachments that require the full reserves of our openness and courage.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
The book tells a story of impeded possibilities and damning choices. The heroine is Claire Marvel, an art student with "hazel eyes alive with amusement; a refined nose above a mouth of promising fullness; straight brown hair falling to the middle of her back; a body slender and lithe." The narrator is Julian Rose, an aspiring academic who, as the story opens, is completing his dissertation in political science. Julian has the diffidence to describe himself as "brain-channeled, sometimes awkward, sometimes amusing; occasionally, in moments as radiant and evanescent as soap bubbles, something more than just smart. But mainly safe."
On a rainy day, outside the closed Fogg Art Museum, Claire and Julian have their first precipitous meeting; they trade wits with each other and share her audacious yellow umbrella. Life afterward will not be the same for either one. She is glittery, suggestive, elusive. He can think of nothing but her light. They share passion; they break apart. They answer each other's deepest needs, and then leave each other lonely.
Through memories and moods, sidelong glances at the past, directaffronts upon the truth, the story unfolds. Short, urgent chapters keep the tension taut, while Julian's voice—seeking, remorseful, self-condemning, honest—gives the book the resonance of a memoir. As readers, we are meant to understand that Julian and Claire are made for each other. Equally, we are meant to see what tragically keeps the two apart—the inherent cautions, the complicated voids, the wrecked faith in their own rightness for each other. No one is evil in this book, but tentativeness is a certain crime.
Motivation is everything in stories such as this, and Schwartz steadfastly provides it. We come to know not just the interior lives of his two protagonists, but the family histories, landscapes and academic compulsions that have indelibly shaped them. We see, with extraordinary clarity, how people grow into who they are. Both Julian and Claire have complicated relationships with their respective fathers, and Schwartz plays both relationships out with depth and care. Whereas Claire has been taught by her father "never to waste," Julian was instructed "never to be the first person to clap after a performance." Claire's father is dying of cancer; the impending loss looms large. Julian's father, who has recently retired after four unremarkable decades with the same publishing house, is emotionally lost, still coping poorly with his ex-wife's abandonment, still afraid of being noticed. "His pale gray eyes were clear of the accrued resentments and morbid regrets typical of men in late middle-age; but clear too, it had to be said, of the determined will and potential fierceness that make men remembered after they've gone. Perhaps I'd grown up vaguely ashamed of his benign acceptance of the status quo and the smallness of his footprint on the earth," Julian acknowledges early on.
Again and again, family tragedy, impatience and bad timing thwart the affair between Julian and Claire; always, the seeming inevitability of their love brings them back together. At one point, at the request of Claire's father, they head to an ancient farmhouse in France, where the relationship between them is both strangely platonic and fiercely involved. But just as soon as the love is again consummated—just as soon as Julian is able to say, "I loved feeling that I had the right to hold her. I loved every one of the places where my body touched hers: our hips and thighs, her head on my chest, my left hand over her right"—the bond between them shatters. Claire will marry someone else. Eventually, so will Julian. Neither marriage will survive the weight of the love Julian and Claire hold for each other.
In Claire Marvel, single sentences are more revelatory than the whole of many modern novels. But beyond the language, Schwartz proves himself a profound interpreter of the human condition, a perspicacious spokesperson on the subject of the heart. Throughout Claire Marvel, we find words to describe impatience, jealousy, awkwardness, need—all the things we have lived through ourselves; we find language that helps give shape to our own experiences. We find a way to forgive Claire and Julian for their terrible choices, their missed opportunities, their inability to give wholly of themselves until it is almost—perhaps—too late, and, in that, we find a way to forgive ourselves. Schwartz reminds us just how vulnerable we all are. He names the cost of love, the price of passion, the implosive consequences of regret.
Can we go on living without the person it seems we were destined to live with? That, finally, is the question that propels this exemplary novel forward, over the course of several years and several ruined chances, over the distance that is etched between youth and middle age. Schwartz doesn't pretend to know the answer. He merely invites us along on the emotional journey.
“In this age of glorious literary excess, of high conceptualizing and big novelizing, it takes some courage to write a simple love story. . . . John Burnham Schwartz takes the risk in his third novel, writing spare, elegant prose.” The New York Times Book Review
“You’ll want to finish this most seductive book in one sitting. Don’t. Put it down and let it color your dreamscape. The characters are that vivid, the book so wise you will be moved and enriched.” Frank McCourt
“A beautifully told love story.” Harper’s Bazaar
Read an Excerpt
There was before her and now there is after her, and that is the difference in my life.
I will begin here because there can be no other beginning for this story. It was the middle of May, 1985. I was walking along Union Street on my way to see a professor one Monday afternoon when the weather turned suddenly. The sky broke open and rain poured down. I sprinted for cover, my book bag thudding against my ribs, reaching the Fogg Art Museum just as the rain became a torrent.
There was a rushing sound as I ran, and a flash of golden yellow.
I reached the museum's low front steps. Standing there watching me from under an umbrella the color of buttercups was a young woman.
"I hate to be the bearer of bad news. But the Fogg's closed Mondays."
Still breathing hard from my sprint I shook my head. Rain the size of Tic-Tacs was pelting me; water was leaking out of my hair and down the back of my neck. I rubbed a sopping shirtsleeve across my face.
She began to laugh, not unkindly. Against the gray stone building and storm-darkened sky her pale face gleamed like bone china.
"Sorry," she said after a while.
"It's just that you're really, unbelievably wet."
Raising the umbrella a few inches higher she offered me a place beside her.
I hesitated. Hazel eyes alive with amusement; a refined nose above a mouth of promising fullness; straight brown hair falling to the middle of her back; a body slender and lithe. I kept glancing at her, then down at the ground. She wore sandals and the hems of her jeans were frayed and her toenails unpainted and a sexy, glistening wash of spattered rain shone on the pale tops of her feet.
I stepped under the umbrella.
"Better, isn't it? Bring your bag under, too. Don't want your great thoughts getting wet."
Her irony was nimble, inviting. I lifted the flap of my stuffed book bag and showed her my inventory: Party Systems and Voter Alignments (5th ed., 1967); A Theory of Parties and Electoral Systems (1981); Political Parties and the Modern State, (1984). A well-thumbed paperback of Bellow's Seize the Day. Also the current issues of Foreign Affairs and The Harvard Gazette, a spiral notebook, five ballpoint pens, a fluorescent highlighter, and half a roll of LifeSavers. Everything damp, of course, from the rain.
Reading the titles she raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
"It's all right," I assured her. "This isn't the first conversation killed off by my interests."
"Oh, I'm pretty sure Bellow's never killed anybody," she said, "except maybe one or two of his ex-wives." She reached for the book. On the cover there was a black-and-white photograph of the back of a man's head, no face, just a hat visible, a pale fedora with a dark band, the hat tilted up in an angle of recognition or perhaps even of wonder at a skyscraper rising in the background. "Seize the Day's not bad," she said, slipping the book back into the bag. "But you should be reading Herzog. The others--well, I'm sure they're fascinating."
I began to close the bag, then changed my mind. "Want a LifeSaver?"
She cocked her head skeptically. "Depends on the flavor."
"Butter rum," I said.
Brightening, she nodded--a girlish bounce of her head that sent a thrill through me. I peeled the damp foil back so she could take one.
"I forgot how good these are." She was rolling the candy noisily around her tongue.
I stood and watched her. Her simple but vivid pleasure had its own kind of pull. Oddly elated, I told her a story about my grandfather taking me to Central Park to play shuffleboard when I was a kid. His propensity to cheat had led him to ply me with butter rum LifeSavers so I wouldn't tell my parents. It had worked. A tale with which I persevered until I became excruciatingly aware of the drone of my own voice. At which point I faded out.
"Your arm must be tired. Let me hold that for you."
Passing me the umbrella her hand touched mine. Her fingers were cool with the moisture in the air. My gaze hurried over the unbuttoned area of her shirt (man's dark red oxford, worn untucked) yet still managed to get hopelessly stuck on the edge of her black bra.
In a voice of deceptive calm I asked about her field of study.
"What?" she said.
The rain was thunderous. I repeated the question, this time raising my voice practically to a shout.
Art history, she yelled back, first year Ph.D. with particular interest in Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Then without warning she drew three fingers across my eyebrows and shook her hand, loose at the wrist, until the water that she'd lifted from my skin flew off her fingertips like sparks.
"Don't mention it."
She turned to watch a car passing on the street, its windshield wipers working frantically to beat back the rain.
Too soon it ended. It was not the great deluge after all, coupled beasts driven onto the hastily built ship to voyage for a lifetime. No, a mere spring shower experienced by two relative strangers.
She extended her hand out past the golden canopy, probing for renegade drops. Her shirt cuff drew back, exposing elegant ringless fingers and a very white wrist.
"Well," she said lightly, "that was certainly an adventure."
She was smiling. But it was a distant smile, as if the connection we'd just shared, however fateful or fortuitous, was finished now. She took the umbrella from my hand and began to furl it. She was getting ready to leave.
"I'm on my way to see a professor," I announced simply to keep her there. "I hope he has a towel."
"I'm sure he'll appreciate your tenacity. 'Neither rain, nor sleet. . . .' How does it go?"
"I think that's for postmen."
She laughed, turning her face up to the sky. Just then the sun was breaking through the cloudcover, silvered rays brightening the pothole puddles of Union Street and the fat beads of water sitting like fake jewels on the hoods of parked cars.
"I have to go," she said.
"I'm Julian Rose," I blurted out, offering my hand.
"You're pretty good company in a storm, Julian Rose."
She held my hand for a couple of seconds. Then, a smile at the corners of her mouth, she let it go. She turned and descended the four steps to the sidewalk where she paused, looking at me over her shoulder. Her expression had softened, and for a moment I thought she would come back.
"I'm Claire Marvel," she said casually. "I'm at Cafe Pamplona sometimes. Afternoons. I go there to read."
With that she turned and walked up the street. I watched her until I couldn't see her anymore.
I had been on my way to see Carl Davis, Sherbourne Professor of Government and Public Policy, during his office hours. Although I was in his lecture class on American Political Institutions I'd never actually met the man whose brilliant reputation preceded him like the prow of a destroyer. It was my hope that afternoon to introduce myself and persuade him to advise me on my doctoral dissertation. As it was, because of the storm, I reached Littaur later than I'd hoped. The door to Professor Davis' office was closed, and filling the bench in the hallway were three graduate students from my department.
Mike Lewin, a thirty-year-old Brooklyn native obsessed with Joseph McCarthy, looked up from a new book on Hollywood's blacklist and muttered, "Hey. Raining out?" His reddish hair was shaggy, his jaw bristling with the wildfire beginnings of a beard. Beside him, pretending to ignore us, sat Parker Bing. An incongruous pairing, I thought. Bing was from Greenwich. His idea of political life belonged to that anachronistic age of WASP class-worship and finals-club "gentlemen" best exemplified by his heroes Acheson and Harriman. He wore hats and bowties and sometimes even suspenders, which he insisted on calling "braces". Through connections he'd already had a three-month stint in the State Department and preferred to acknowledge only those colleagues he deemed likely to find similar advancement.
The third student was a slender woman from New Delhi named Dal. I'd heard she was a champion squash player.
The bench was full, so I took a seat on the floor. My three colleagues were all reading diligently. I pulled Political Parties and the Modern State from my shoulder bag and made an attempt to join them. But I couldn't concentrate. My damp khakis chafed against my thighs and Claire's yellow umbrella kept breaking into my thoughts. Beneath it I'd stood with her, the rain buffeting the thin sunlike carapace above our heads. Already it was hard to remember what had actually occurred. What had I actually said to her? Had her comment at the end been an invitation, or just a dodge?
"See you," mumbled Lewin, shuffling by. He'd already finished his meeting with Davis. I looked up to see Bing striding into the office and the door shutting behind him. Dal's glance met mine and I raised my eyebrows but she hastily lowered her eyes to her book, a tome called Grassroots Nation, leaving me stranded once again with my thoughts about Claire Marvel.
The odds weren't in my favor, I reckoned. Meeting her had been a freak occurrence, some weird twist of meteorological fate. I'd go on being myself--brain-channeled, sometimes awkward, sometimes amusing; occasionally, in moments as radiant and evanescent as soap bubbles, something more than just smart. But mainly safe. Safety lay not in numbers but in the assurance that where one has already walked no surprises can lurk. There was the future to think about. This was our creed. Among hard-core grad students in government romance was considered a questionable sideline. A muddy source to be handled with extreme circumspection, it might taint the waters of pure, wonkish ambition.
Bing emerged from Davis' office looking smug. He offered Dal a curt nod, as if permission to enter were his to bestow, then walked past me without a glance. Dal gathered her things. She was pretty and moved with an easy grace. She walked into the office, closing the door behind her.
There are men who feel handsome, I assume; perhaps, on occasion, even godlike. I was never one of them. It's not that I was necessarily unattractive--no one had ever called me that. But neither had I ever felt myself the object of a woman's delighted aesthetic scrutiny, her unmistakable, unassailable desire. My girlfriends in the past had been few and far between and willfully indifferent to my physical presence. Or they'd been mentally absent, perpetually immersed in their weekly planners, seminars and fencing classes. A condition which with my innate cautiousness I'd always accepted and reciprocated, perhaps even understood.
I wasn't particularly athletic or strong. My body came in at something under six feet, a hundred and sixty pounds. My skin was a Semitic shade of pale olive. My short dark-brown hair parted quietly to the left. My eyes were brown and spaced widely to either side of a medium-to-large nose that (given old photographs of certain relatives on my mother's side) had to be considered something of a blessing. I had nice hands, my grandmother used to assure me, with long pianist's fingers; though musical talent had not accompanied this gift.
No, I thought, I wouldn't be going to Cafe Pamplona. It wasn't an invitation. There was enough potential disappointment in any given day without the need to add to the risks. Beauties like her--women with extravagant umbrellas--were inevitably, biologically engineered to seek out beauty in their mates. And so she would. Me, I'd play the odds. And the odds said No way. This wasn't habit, I tried to assure myself, just sound reasoning.
I looked up. Dal was standing there, serene, exotic.
"Should I go in?"
"I'd talk fast if I were you," she said in a disinterested tone. "He kept looking at his watch."
What flashed through my brain as I heard the deep-voiced "Come in" and entered the spacious office with the cherrywood desk and mahogany rocking-chair were the old photographs I'd often seen reproduced in magazines of a youthful, strapping Ronald Reagan on his Santa Barbara ranch--splitting wood, mending fences, riding the range. Professor Davis was standing by the window. Of course I'd seen him many times in lecture where he was known for speaking in Churchillian fashion for two hours without notes. But here in the intimate confines of his office he seemed altogether more imposing. Not quite fifty, tall--like his hero and "friend", the actor-cum-president, he possessed broad square shoulders and large powerful hands. He favored suits rather than the usual professorial tweeds. His salt-and-pepper hair was impressively full, his brows two thick brushstrokes made by a supremely confident artist. Behind rimless glasses his eyes were a piercing blue. And he had a leader's nose: meaty yet straight, with a hawkish boldness that on a man of less defined character might have been a cartoon.
He glanced at his watch. "Are you the last?"
"Good. I have a plane to catch soon. In the meantime we'll talk. Have a seat. That's a Kennedy rocker, by the way. Don't worry, I won't hold it against you."
It was a joke, I figured, however tepid; but he didn't smile and so neither did I. I sat on the rocker. For himself he took a wooden armchair emblazoned with a faded Harvard insignia.
"Professor Davis . . . " I began.
"You're in my class," he interrupted, scrutinizing me with sharp eyes.
"Don't tell me." His brow creased, the verticals deeply etched. "Rose. Something Rose. Am I right?"
I stared at him, not sure whether to feel flattered or alarmed. "Julian."
"Julian," I repeated a bit louder.
"That's it. Charlie Dixon mentioned you to me. I'm looking for a research assistant. Is that why you're here?"
"My last one was a disaster. Thought he was a young Voltaire." He scrutinized me again, as if I'd just that moment walked into the room. "You always sit on the left. Correct?"
"Same seat. Don't tell me it's superstition--I don't believe in magic. Did you know Dixon recommended you to me? You did some noteworthy research for him, I believe."
I nodded. "For his book on Teddy Roosevelt and the election of 1912. Just the final section, the part dealing with the Progressive Party platform--direct senatorial elections, woman's suffrage, reduction of the tariff, the social reforms. That kind of thing. Actually, Professor Davis--"
"Have you read the whole book? Because Dixon sent me a copy last month, hot off the press, and I've had a look-through. Strictly between us, I think it's soft."
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
John Burnham Schwartz is the author of Bicycle Days and Reservation Road, which have been translated into more than ten languages. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, and Vogue. He lives with his wife, filmmaker Aleksandra Crapanzano, in Brooklyn, New York.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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I don't usually enjoy anything labeled under the romance genre but every once in awhile I find an author that can convey an intelligent message that makes it worthwhile reading. In "Claire Marvel," Schwartz shows how truly complex human emotions can be..."choices made, inexplicable mistakes"..simple? maybe, but definitely life changing. Each sentence in this beautifully crafted novel resonates with such strong feelings that I was totally enthralled from beginning to end with this sad but beautiful love story.
I don't normally read romance novels and to be honest have never liked the genre but this is a true exception. This book is simply magnificent. Theres no other way to put it.
This novel is a pure delight. The characters, settings, and plot are mezmerizing. The fresh and intellegent prose alone is a pleasure. Claire Marvel is among my favorite novels. I could read it again and again, and I will.
The book is very slow, yet the story sounded promising, so I continued. But I eventually was disappointed. Although books need not be full of action, love stories should at least describe emotions, something the author does not. Till the end I wanted to know the outcome but the story kept dragging on, so I started to skip a page, then pages, then chapters. Too bad, because the main character is a pleasingly sensitive and considerate man, rather a rarity in novels. And if for no other reason than that I would have liked the book to succeed.
Simply put 'Claire Marvel' is a triumph. A love story rendered in singing prose it is compelling and heartrending, exciting and true. 'There was before her and now there is after her,' it begins, ' and that is the difference in my life.' Two Harvard graduate students meet by chance on a rainy day. Claire offers Julian cover beneath her umbrella, a chance encounter which will forever change them both. They are very much alike these two, although each puzzles the other. They are drawn to one another, a love affair begins yet it is as if their bodies have connected but not their souls. After a time Claire asks Julian to join her in France but their idyll is short-lived. Upon returning to the United States she chooses to marry someone else. Nonetheless, the connection between Julian and Claire remains, a link that influences the future even after Julian, too, marries another. It is in the exploration of this abiding connectedness that the novel glows, contemplating what might have been, pondering deathless hope, and probing the impenetrable workings of the human heart. 'Claire Marvel' is an exemplary achievement. Read it and rejoice; read it and weep.
This wonderful novel shimmers with elegant prose and resonates with wisdom. A marvel destined to be a classic.
After I finished this book, I buried my head in my hands and cried. The broad scope, the raw emotion, the tender prose; rarely do books affect me like this. Claire Marvel touched me deeply. By chance, I stumbled across this beautiful and melancholic story, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has ever loved and lost. This is one of the best books I've read this year.