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Letters from an Age of Reason: A Novel

1 rating: 3.0
A book

Spirited, intelligent, and passionate, Arabella Leeds finds it nearly impossible to play the self-effacing, subservient role expected of a virtuous, well-brought-up daughter of wealthy Victorian parents. Constantly in trouble for defending abused servants … see full wiki

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1 review about Letters from an Age of Reason: A Novel

Pick the heart-healthy choice from the menu next time out

  • Mar 19, 2012
Rating:
+3
I have two pieces of advice for most first novelists:

1).  You needn't say everything this time.  Save some for your second time out.  I can understand the pent-up desire, the great American novel pushing its way out of your pen, and the rush of worry that this might be your one and only chance if even this one makes it to print, so you must put it all in here.  So here are nearly 650 pages of dense first novel from Nora Hague, and there is a lot of work getting through it.  Work handsomely repaid with a fine story, but work nonetheless.  

Interestingly enough, this was Hague's first novel, in 2001, and now a decade later remains the only one she is credited with on amazon.com.  Perhaps in this case that first-novel fear of never having another chance was rightly reasoned.

2).  The fictional device of letters or journal entries are hard to sustain without drawing attention to the frame and not the picture, the scaffolding and not the building.  Here, the story is told through the journals of Arabella Leeds, the teen-aged and coming of age daughter of a wealthy New York family, and the never-sent letters from Aubrey Paxton, a pampered light-skinned New Orleans slave to his grandmother.  

The "Age of Reason" in the title is not a reference to the historical time, the early years of the 1860s, as it was a time when reason had fled from public life, from culture, from politics, from personal relationships, blasted apart by war between and among the races and regions of the United States--and widely separated by race and region it takes nearly 350 pages of this back and forth journaling and letter-writing to bring these two characters together, at which point the story really gains steam--only to be brought to a crawl again by yet more never-delivered letters from Aubrey's beloved grandmother--which retell, from yet another perspective, the exact same events Hague has already related.  While the devices make logical sense, and serve the cause of completeness, they leave little room for what feels like a rushed ending even after 650 pages.  A simple narrative framework might have gotten the background established and the characters interacting in half the pages, with a more measured pace to a more complete ending in less than 500 pages.  

Along the course of the novel, Hague includes historical details like events of the war at home, foreign perception (and fearful wonderings of Americans trapped abroad by) of the war, the rise of spiritism, the incipient struggle for women's rights, miscegenation among African-American slaves and the resulting perception of color gradations among their mixed offspring.  Hague chews everything she bites off here, and in a testament to her writing skill actually carries it off pretty well despite the indigestion resulting from the size of the meal.  In the end, Aubrey and Arabella stand out as strong characters fighting for reason despite their age and the age they lived in, and I cared enough to follow them through to the end. 

But next time out, if there is one for Hague, she should pick from the light menu.

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