“Staggeringly brilliant . . . You’ll start The Maze of Windermere with bewilderment, but you’ll close it in awe.” —The Washington Post
“Pitch perfect.” —New York Times Book Review
When a drunken party guest challenges him to a late-night tennis match, Sandy Allison finds himself unexpectedly entangled in the monied world of Newport, Rhode Island. A former touring pro a little down on his luck, Sandy has nothing to stake against the vintage motorcycle his opponent wagers. But then Alice DuPont—the young heiress to a Newport mansion called Windermere—offers up her diamond necklace.
With this reckless wager begins a dazzling narrative odyssey that braids together four centuries of aspiration and adversity in this renowned seaside society capital. A witty and urbane bachelor of the Gilded Age embarks on a high-risk scheme to marry into a fortune; a young Henry James, soon to make his mark on the world, turns himself to his craft with harrowing social consequences; an aristocratic British officer during the American Revolution carries on a courtship that leads to murder; and, in Newport’s earliest days, a tragically orphaned Quaker girl imagines a way forward for herself and the slave girl she has inherited.
Gregory Blake Smith weaves these intersecting worlds into a rich, brilliant tapestry. A deftly layered novel of love, ambition, and duplicity, The Maze at Windermere charts a voyage across the ages into the maze of the human heart.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
¥ Summer 2011 ¥
He was trying to explain to her how he'd gotten to be where he was. The condition he was in. His state of mind, the state of his bank account. His heart, his soul, whatever. They were in the Orangery at Windermere, Aisha newly naked beside him, the salt air coming in through the window, and this was the sort of moment when he somehow felt compelled to tell all.
What had gotten under his skin, he found himself saying, was the way the guy kept bringing up the Tennis Life article. "Lacks the killer instinct to break into the top fifty," he kept saying, drunk, obnoxious, smiling that smile that men smile to show they're just kidding even when they're not just kidding. Who was this bozo anyway?
At which Aisha leaned over and kissed him like "poor you," her dreadlocks spilling across her lovely shoulders.
This had been last August, he told her, a real low point in his life. His knee was shot and he'd just retired . . . or was on the verge of retiring . . . or wasn't sure whether he was retiring or not-but his right knee was messed up, his life was messed up, his ranking had dropped below two hundred for the first time in eight years, and the only options were to drift back down into the Challengers circuit, or pack it in and try to land a college coaching job, or failing that a gig at some luxury resort instructing Fortune 500 types on how to hit a slice backhand.
"Sandy Alison," he imitated the guy, the bozo, the guy with the motorcycle last August. "Out of Duke, a great shotmaker but lacks the killer instinct to break into the top fifty."
Thing was, that past August was the second year running he hadn't qualified for the US Open. It had been the beginning of the end. And even if he had qualified, he wouldn't have been able to play—his knee again—so he'd come to Newport to the Hall of Fame Champions Cup as a hitting partner for Todd Martin. (A tagalong, a hanger-on: was that his future?) His money was beginning to run out and he knew he had to make a decision, and soon, but in Newport a little of the old life beckoned, and after the semifinals he'd gone to the Champions Ball with the idea of catching on with some of the local wealth (this was Newport, he didn't have to remind Aisha), but the evening had degenerated from the waltz to the bossa nova to the Watusi until the surviving couple dozen partiers—the Champions had left a long time ago—had gone off barhopping down along Thames Street and ended up at this . . . this . . . he couldn't even remember where they'd ended up but the bozo, the guy with the antique motorcycle, just wouldn't let up.
What he didn't tell her was how that phrase—"lacks the killer instinct"—had eaten at him for nearly a decade. It came from a year-end issue of Tennis Life, a Future-of-American-Tennis sort of thing about the new crop of guys making the transition to the pro tour. This was back in 2002 and he had just made it, as a freshman no less, to the NCAA Semifinals, and some of the things they had to say were cool. They called him "the Southern Gentleman," said he had an artistry on the court, was well liked in the players' lounge. But that last summing up had seemed to doom him to the hinterland of Almost But Not Quite, which, if he was completely honest, was exactly where he'd spent the decade of his pro career. He had in fact cracked the top fifty (Sandy Alison, 2006, #47 in the world, you can look it up), had made it once to the third round of Wimbledon, twice to the second round of the US Open, had a dozen Challengers titles to his name, the courts back at his Charleston high school named in his honor, but somehow none of that was good enough. He was, somehow, in spite of all that, a loser. It didn't matter that in 2006 he could beat all but forty-six freaking players in the whole freaking world. It didn't matter that whatever town he drove into he could beat whoever their best tennis player was, could beat him left-handed for Pete's sake (and he could too; he used to mess around on the court playing left-handed when he should have been doing drills)—none of that mattered. He was—even while people wanted to know him, wanted to hang out with him because he was a professional athlete—somehow he was still a loser. He hadn't been a winner—he lacked the killer instinct—and therefore he had to be a loser. That was how it felt anyway, although he didn't ever tell that to anyone. Certainly not to the woman lying beside him.
So yeah, the motorcycle. Maybe all it was, was just that the guy was a bad drunk. Maybe he was just a bad drunk and it just happened to have been Sandy who had gotten in his way. But the guy started calling shit at him across the room the Casino party had settled into, the women in their cocktail dresses and the men in their dinner jackets with their ties undone. It got bad enough that everyone started getting embarrassed for Sandy. The women wouldn't look at him, or they'd shush the bozo—there was this one British woman there who kept saying, "Oh, what rot!"—and the men had that look men get when one of them is being singled out. The challenge, the appraisal, the are-you-just-gonna-sit-there-and-take-it? look.
Earlier in the evening the motorcycle guy had been friendly enough. Sandy had stood with him on the sidewalk in front of one of the bars down on lower Thames Street and they'd talked tennis. The guy knew who Sandy was, knew his career, had himself played for Williams twenty years earlier, and Sandy had complimented him on his motorcycle parked alongside the curb—an antique red Indian Chief with those deeply valanced fenders and the whole Steve McQueen look—complimented him not because he cared about motorcycles but just because he was a nice guy, right? Hadn't Tennis Life said so?
Anyway, inside the bar it got to a point where Sandy had to answer the guy, had to say something, anything, so he called back over the tables and chairs that separated them: "Dude, I could beat you left-handed!"
"Dude?" the guy had said. "Dude?" Like it was the sorriest-ass thing anyone could say. And he had this way of spreading his hands about himself, gesturing toward the others as if to include them on his side, as if it was the lot of them who'd paid a thousand dollars a plate against the tennis pro who lacked the killer instinct. There was no way Sandy could beat him left-handed, the guy said, and when Sandy challenged him again, the guy had said okay, he was on. One set. Sandy left-handed. Him right-handed. He'd put up the Indian.
"No Indian," Sandy had said. "We just play."
The bozo went "pfft," like what kind of loser was this? Of course they had to play for something. That's how it was done. "The Indian," he said again. "You were drooling over it an hour ago, pretty boy. It's yours if you can beat me."
He had tried to keep his own nonchalance, but the faces on either side of him began to swim at the edge of his vision: the low-cut necklines, the pearls and spaghetti straps, the men with expressions of wanting to look away.
"Lacks the killer instinct," the guy said and gazed around the room with an easy gesture like voilà.
"Okay," Sandy had said. He tried to make his own easy gesture, like okay if that's what you want.
The guy turned back to him. "Okay." He mimicked Sandy's accent, making the word sound like it had three syllables, and then after a few strategic moments had passed: "And what're you putting up, champ?"
And that, he told Aisha, was when he got it. When he understood. The motorcycle was appraised at 30K, the guy was saying. What was Sandy going to put up against it? He had walked right into it, he told her. It hadn't been about tennis. It wasn't even the drunk-former-college-player-who-thought-he-could've-been-a-pro thing. He'd seen that before. No, this was about something else.
"Dude?" the guy mocked.
He could feel the heat coming into his face. The whole room began to swim. He had enough presence of mind not to smile, but that was about it.
"What rot!" the Brit tossed out again.
"Thirty K," the guy repeated, "give or take a couple. I'll accept stocks, bonds, traveler's checks"—he was having fun now—"a new bow thruster for my thirty-meter—"
And that was when Margo had saved his ass, he told Aisha, who propped herself up on her elbow like this was the part she wanted to hear about. This classy-looking woman who stood up and ring-tossed a necklace down on the table in front of the bozo. Sandy had noticed her earlier in the evening, tight black dress, super-short hair, maybe available if it weren't for this girl with—what? cerebral palsy?—this girl who was always at her side. Who was even now staring at him with her pale, strained face. The guy looked at the necklace like it was a grenade that had just landed in front of him. The classy-looking woman had turned to Sandy with that hard face he would come to know.
"You can beat this asshole, right?" she said.
So there had been no other way out. He had stood up and the whole room had broken into a buzz. They had loaded into their cars (the Brit lady on the back of the Indian, it turned out), and because there was no way to get into the Casino now, had driven out to the high school, where there were lighted courts, but of course it was two in the morning and the lights were on a timer so they had to maneuver some of the cars alongside until their headlights lit the courts. Half a dozen racquets came out of various trunks. Someone popped a new can of balls.
And what could he say? He had destroyed the guy. There was a big difference between a drunk forty-year-old former Division III player and a drunk thirty-one-year-old international touring pro even if the international touring pro was playing left-handed in his stocking feet and lacked the killer instinct, you tuxedoed douche-bag. The guy had a big first serve that was a bitch returning left-handed, but it became clear after the first couple of games that everything else he had was strictly 4.5. And once the freaky nerves were gone, Sandy had started totally messing with the guy, moving him back and forth along the baseline and then drop-shotting him, moon-balling him just for fun, spinning the ball, cutting it, slicing it like a Harlem Globetrotter. He even pulled out this hilarious serve he'd learned from Jimmy Arias. He'd toss the ball up and swing at it like he normally would do, only he'd miss it—a total whiff!—and then all in the same motion, just when the ball was about to touch the ground, underhand it right into the service box. Only he had to do this right-handed, but by then nobody cared, not even the bozo douche-bag who Sandy had to admit had carried the whole thing off better than he would have expected. When it was over, they met at the net. The guy was holding out the key to the Indian, telling him something about how it had a suicide shifter so he'd have to watch out. The Brit lady was saying she'd always hated the bloody thing anyway.
"Forget it," Sandy had said. "You're drunk. I'm drunk. Everybody's drunk. Forget it."
But as soon as he'd said it he knew it was the wrong thing. Margo took the key and threw it into his chest, gave him a look like don't be a loser. (Cripes, he said to Aisha—he said things like that: cripes, geez, smart aleck—it was part of being a Southern Gentleman—cripes, it was like he couldn't get anything right that night!) He'd at least had the good sense to wait until people were out of earshot before he admitted he didn't know how to ride a motorcycle. Margo had rolled her eyes, held out her hand for the key, and Sandy had followed her home in her SUV with the thin, intense-looking girl sitting silently beside him in the passenger seat.
And that's how he'd met Margo. That's how it'd all started, if "all" was a word he could use for an affair that was more off than it was on. Or rather, an affair that was only on when Margo said it was-a phone call, a meeting place, and then nothing for days. Or months, as it turned out once he'd left Newport that past September. Not a text or a phone call or an e-mail the whole winter while he was down south at Saddlebrook.
Reading Group Guide
I have read somewhere that curators of antiquities have discovered that oftentimes parchments of the Dark Ages have underneath their present writing an older writing incompletely effaced, and that by careful investigation, the older writing can be read beneath the newer. Such a layering of writing is called . . . a palimpsest. Ah, to be able to read both the surface and that which is below the surface! (pages 69–70)
The Maze at Windermere takes us on a dazzling narrative odyssey across five intersecting stories, each set at a distinctive moment in the history of the renowned seaside town of Newport, Rhode Island.
In 2011, handsome and easygoing tennis pro Sandy Alison is surprised to find himself falling for Alice du Pont, heiress to the legendary Newport mansion known as Windermere. Alice does not look like the women to whom Sandy is usually drawn, and Sandy is forced to examine what his motives are in pursuing Alice. Does he love her, or the world that she is attached to? More than a century earlier, in 1896, a closeted gay man with nothing but a sharp wit and impeccable taste schemes to secure a life of comfort and luxury by marrying the wealthy widow who owns Windermere. In 1863, young Henry James, soon to make his mark on the world, discovers his muse in Alice Taylor and strikes up a friendship with her. His attentions, however, are misinterpreted as romantic pursuit, and James must make a decision about what he is willing to sacrifice for his art. In the midst of the Revolutionary War in 1778, an aristocratic British officer stationed in Newport is consumed by his desire to seduce—at whatever cost—a young Jewish woman. Finally, in 1692, an orphaned Quaker girl looks to find a path forward for herself, and the slave she has inherited, without losing her chance at love and happiness.
Beautifully written and unforgettable, these five interwoven stories reflect and refract one another, demonstrating both the ever-changing landscape of Newport across history and the enduring landscape of the human heart in all its love, ambition, and duplicity.
1. At one point in the novel Alice du Pont tells Sandy Alison that in France there’s “. . . a crime called abus de faiblesse. Which is exploiting someone’s frailty or weakness for your own gain. A kind of killer instinct” (page 60). Who is doing the exploiting in this novel, and who is being exploited?
2. In one of their early conversations Sandy and Aisha discuss money and motive: “When that kind of money was involved, that kind of privilege . . . could anybody really be sure of their motives?” (page 90). Do you agree with the idea that one’s motives can be obscure even to oneself? Beyond their stated motives, what do you think each main character—Sandy Alison, Franklin Drexel, Henry James, Major Ballard, and Prudence Selwyn—truly desires?
3. Major Ballard writes that he sometimes feels “as if I am standing outside the World and looking in, as if I am on the Edge of the world’s Orchard and I can see the Fruit hanging on the trees but am denied them” (page 116). Other characters in the novel share this experience of feeling that they don’t quite belong. Major Ballard’s impulse is a determination to “eat of the fruit of that Orchard, violently if that was what it took” (page 117). How do other characters respond to their experience of being on the margins of their world?
4. Certain phrases, themes, and places surface and resurface across the different eras in this novel. Did you notice any in particular? What is their significance? And, in general, what do you make of the way in which “. . . the rich past underlies the present” (page 69) in The Maze at Windermere?
5. Sandy takes Margo at her word when she offers to write him a recommendation. When Alice hears of this she laughs, surprised by his innocence, and tells him he should pass on it. “You don’t see it because it’s not inside you and so you don’t recognize it in others” (page 198). Is this an accurate assessment of Sandy? Is Sandy as innocent as others believe him to be? As he believes himself to be?
6. In part three the structure of the novel shifts, and we begin to switch more rapidly and fluidly between narrators. What is the purpose and effect of this?
7. As the author says in his Q&A, in each of the novel’s eras we are confronted with similar questions of culpability: Is Franklin Drexel’s scheme to marry a rich woman he can never love excusable because he lives in a world that has no place for him as a gay man? Should Henry James have seen sooner that his attentions to Alice Taylor might be misinterpreted? And is even the despicable Major Ballard redeemed by his beginning to love the young woman he had only meant to seduce?
8. There is some uncertainty as to what path some of the characters will choose to take as the novel draws to a close. Indeed, the author seems to be encouraging the reader to “step off the chessboard” of the novel and imagine how those paths will unfold. What do you see the future holding for each character?
9. And finally, consider the maze motif in the novel. In what ways do the characters find themselves in figurative mazes? Does the reader find him- or herself in a maze as well?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Five stories connect, contrast and combine to tell a story of Newport, Rhode Island with all of the superficial, super-rich, edge, drama and duplicity that has existed through the years. Spanning present day (2011) to the Gilded Age in 1896, the stories then travel to the Civil War era of 1863, back to another war-era in 1778 and lastly to Colonial era 1693. Through these 3 centuries we meet characters that show many sides of human nature through their actions, good and bad. Each story and character develops and grows through their reveal – from pure greed to deception for survival, a search for acceptance and even a grasp for wealth and power: the good, bad, ugly and everything in between. I’ll have to say that each story and time presents with a unique voice: descriptive, self-examining (eventually for some) and easy to connect with: as their stories unfold they build a portrait that is both wholly human and tangible. Sure- there are some who are more intriguing (to me) than others – but the underpinning that Smith has built so well – their humanity – shines through beautifully. Strongly present in each story is the character’s need to share their own truth: whether that be grounded in self-determination, wealth and power or forbidden love. Each character also starts with what we assume to be is a clear direction, and that often veers from the path to give a much richer and more nuanced understanding. The power of these simple agendas of love, self-determination, survival and success are points of each human’s existence. The WHY of the search, the need to pursue and achieve that is common to all over ages and circumstance have arrived at five separate answers within this book. Rich and layered with moments of their time and utterly timeless, the characters will engage with moments of familiar: sadness, joy and an overwhelming sense of connectedness to then, now and one another are some of the rewards found in this book. I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.