There is something about a Willa Cather novel that has a long lasting affect, even after the last page has been read. Perhaps it is the joyful and vibrant expectancy of what idealism and hard work can yield. Or, perhaps, it is the cutting dagger of truth that bring her characters back to reality. Whatever it is, months and years can pass by, and for me, in the quiet stillness of reflection, pondering all the books that I've read, Willa Cather's plots and themes and language always ring supreme. Her writing is strong, forceful and prosaic. The way her scenes of joy, transition, isolation and struggles are crystalized through the written word-depicting all the many complex facets of the new order of society versus the old-are without compromise. Willa Cather was a pitbull with the pen and a hatchet wielding editor who made no apologies for her sharp streamlining. Yet, she was also a visionary and speaker for the traditional and old order of society. She was the one who gave a voice to the voiceless as technological and cultural progression militantly took ahold of society and swept it fiercely along. With the rush forward, I can always imagine her staying eagerly back with an all knowing and acute perception that restraint and tradition has its place in the world, too.
The novel is a compelling case-in-point; it is a quiet yet powerful book that tells the story of a repressed yet passionate young woman named Lucy Gayheart from Haverford by the Platte River. Taught and fostered by her father in the art of music, Lucy Gayheart has a sensitive outlook to the deeper meanings of what it is to be artistic. A longtime beau, who many assume will be Lucy's future husband, sees the artistic nature as a more feminine inclination that really has nothing to do with the harsh realities of life. But Harry cannot really see beneath the surface of art, and he is rather a lightweight in the scope of humanistic thought and understanding. In that regard, they are complete opposites. Just because they look good together, it does not necessarily mean that they are. To try to further her talent, she goes to Chicago to showcase her skills under the tutelage of her professor, Paul Auerbach. From then on, she is attached Clement Sebastian, a renowned singer from Europe, and he is everything representative of Lucy's vision of what an artist is and should be: restrained, cultured, strong, studious in his craft and always seeking to take art to a level that it has never before been to. However, when tragedy strikes Clement Sebastian, it forces Lucy back to her little world in Haverford, where the citizens, though compassionate, caring and hard working, are limited in many ways. It is here where Lucy confronts the old order of things against the new, which has been emblazoned unto her impressionable mindset. She cannot go back to what she previously was, for her new experiences will not grant her that. She is in limbo, stuck in perpetual reflection with the past and what will never be.
With that suffering, Harry, her former beau, is also in a similar rut. He can't imagine having anyone else as his wife except Lucy Garhart, but when she spurned him when he visited her, the gall was too strong to digest, and his ego would not allow him to forgive her. While in Haverford, Harry would come across Lucy quite frequently, but he would always approach her with an icy civility that went beyond the manner of aloof. He made her living in Haverford nearly impossible, no matter how hard she tried to be friendly to him. She made her bed, and she had to lie in it. That was Harry's brutish approach, and he would not diverge from it. Lucy's only help and communication would come from the community at large, but her evolution from young village waif to refined and cultured musician distanced her from everybody. She was not the good ol' Lucy that people remembered. She was ostracized, but it was largely her own doing, for she cold not relate anymore to the life. That would have consequences come towards the end of the novel.
Tragedy is key in this novel, because it is the insight that gets conveyed after the fact, especially for Harry when he looks at the old Gayheart homestead; that makes the work very deep. Harry looks back with longing and regret, knowing that the past cannot be altered. He, in a way, is living his own punishment that he inflicted upon Lucy. He's married to a woman who he is really not in love with, and he is alone, despite the fact that he is embraced by the community. He too is shunned, but again, it is by his own doing. And in that regard, he and Lucy are a perfect tragic match.
What I liked about Lucy Gayheart was the conveyance of those fleeting moments in time that are so special you want to recapture them and never let them go. It's like looking at a photo album and remembering times past with innocence and fondness. But with Cather, you get hardcore realism besides just the simple beauty of remembrances of what used to be. With a Willa Cather novel, I always come away with a sense of loss but also deep gratitude.