AUGUST 12, 2020
LIKE A PIECE of shattered glass, New Rochelle slips into New York with its jagged southern coastline butting against the Long Island Sound. The winters are colorless and cold, and the Sound turns a discouraging metallic green. But in springtime, cherry blossoms and lilacs perfume the air. The Sound becomes a tropical blue, hospitable to the sailboats that pour into its waters. On land, the flouncy three-story Queen Annes and plainspoken Cape Cods come alive with the sounds of lawn mowers and the smells of fried chicken.
In this congenial suburb, Geraldine and Earle Wingo run the bakery …
So begins Betsy Carter’s lyrical ode to love, straight love, gay love, love between a mother and child, and what happens when love is withheld. The story begins in 1929: as “the sky turned black and a hollow wind blew through town,” Geraldine Wingo gives birth. Geraldine, who “tended to herself with the fastidiousness of a cat” and “enjoyed the way men’s eyes blanketed her with something more than admiration,” wasn’t ready to give herself up to a child. But her husband, Earle, wanted a baby, and in the late ’20s, “a childless woman was considered as odd as an unmarried man in his thirties,” an apt allusion as we shall see. Besides, she was insecure. She saw how the ladies “patted down their hair and ran their tongues over their teeth before speaking to Earle — beautiful Earle.”
“So, grudgingly, she allowed herself to get pregnant, and in 1929, just before the country slid into a depression, Geraldine gave birth.” This baby is Emilia Mae, whose colic makes her scream in pain for hours. Geraldine tried everything she could think to calm her child, from rocking and singing lullabies (music is a theme throughout the book) to castor oil rubs, but nothing quieted Emilia Mae’s shrieks. “Sleep-deprived and desperate, Geraldine took the baby’s screams as an affront.” She felt as if her own child was clawing at her body and robbing her of her sex appeal.
As the years go by, the reader learns what happens to a child whose mother is unable to love her. When Emilia Mae was sick or lonely, she’d think, “I want my mommy,” but she could never find one. There was only Geraldine with her red lipstick and hard eyes.
However, Geraldine believed she’d tried. Every week she’d go to church and pray for guidance, but everything she did or said seemed to be wrong. And by the time Emilia Mae became a teenager, she’d become sullen and withdrawn.
Then in December 1944 (World War II is ignored, possibly because Carter covered this period in her 2017 novel, We Were Strangers Once), Sam Bostwick, the owner of the Neptune Inn, tells Geraldine that he is looking for a charwoman. She pretends to think about it, before offering him her 15-year-old daughter. Her husband, Earle, is aghast. Emilia Mae overhears him say, “I will not have my daughter leave school and work at some inn where […] there’s no one to watch over her.”
“No one to watch over her” sounds good to Emilia Mae, who rides her bike the five miles to the Neptune Inn to tell Bostwick she’s looking for work. Part two of the novel takes us back to 1929 and introduces us to a new set of characters and to a new setting, Skyville, North Carolina, a fictional town on Lake Lure near Asheville. It’s here that Beau Fox’s car breaks down and he meets blues-singing waitress Lily Doucet in a pool hall. They have a few drinks and then and a few more at a local speakeasy before he takes her home.
I love the way Carter describes their first night together: “She opened a few buttons, unsnapped some strategic snaps, and before you knew it, Lily Doucet and her clothes had parted company.”
Soon she’s pregnant, but like Geraldine having a baby was never Lily’s dream. Her dream was to become a singer. Nevertheless, in 1931 she gives birth to a son they name Dillard, in honor of the password they used to enter the speakeasy the time they met. But four years later the lure of a business card, slipped to her by a man who promised to put her on the radio, is too hard to resist. Lily Doucet packs up her things and walks out.
The next chapter returns us to the Neptune Inn, where Emilia Mae is washing floors, serving meals, cleaning guest rooms, and, once a day, riding her bicycle five miles back to the bakery to pick up desserts. Instead of school, “she learned things about people: the women who walked the streets at night and turned in at six in the morning, the men who shared a bed and wore matching black turtlenecks, the couples who left odd stains on the sheets.” When a pale man fondles her, of course she knows she ought to stop him, but he makes her shiver, so she doesn’t push him away.
Three years later, when she’s 18, she meets a salesman named John, who wears ironed shirts and whose suitcase smells of lavender soap. He talks to her about the world, books, Manhattan, and the New York Yankees. Emilia Mae begins to look forward to his visits until, to her horror, she discovers she, too, is pregnant.
Carter goes on to explore the lives of these three unwanted children, alternating between New Rochelle, New York, and Skyville, North Carolina, where Dillard grows up so handsome that both the high school girls and their mothers flirt with him. Inheriting his mother’s talent for music, he’s accepted to Black Mountain College, excels at the flute, and stays for two years after graduation as a teaching assistant. Returning home, he hopes to jumpstart his life. His father tells him he’s heard about hotels in the Catskills that hire young musicians, saying, “Handsome young men are catnip for these places.” Dillard takes the bus to New York and stays in the Catskills for two years, but he hates it there. Management treats him and the other musicians poorly, calling them “tart” or “show boy” and paying them only a pittance beyond room and board.
Drifting, he returns to Skyville, where, in Betsy Carter’s liquid prose, “the summer breeze smelled of jasmine and the moon shone like a crown over the mountains. […] It was a waste not to be in love in Skyville summers, if only in love with love.” And so, in the summer of 1959, Dillard Fox falls in love. He gets a job as a receptionist for Nick Moore, the town’s tall, handsome doctor. Six weeks later, Nick suggests they pick up some beers and go down to the lake. It’s here he “leaned into Dillard and whispered: ‘I feel like kissing you.’”
“‘Me too,’ said Dillard, surprised to hear those words come out of his mouth,” but he “fell into the kiss as if it were home.”
Surprised? Of course, we know homosexuality was against the law in 1959. If a gay man came out, he could lose his job as a teacher, a lawyer, an executive. He could even go to jail. His family might well turn away from him. But Betsy Carter tells us Dillard did not go to a fundamentalist school or even a state university, but to Black Mountain College, the bohemian center of the avant-garde, where sexual freedom was practically part of the curriculum, and then asks us to believe no “show boy” (her words) climbed into his bed or stole a kiss in the moonlight during those two years in the Catskills.
Maybe. The human heart holds mysteries, and sexual preferences can be set or fluid. Nick, who’s married, becomes the great love of Dillard’s life, and when the affair ends, he’s bereft. He goes into a deep depression as he knocks around New York taking one terrible job after another. But he doesn’t stay in the city. Carter, who lives in New York, was the creator and editor-in-chief of New York Woman magazine, and served as editorial director of Esquire, prefers to place her novels in less refined settings. So, it should come as no surprise to the reader that Dillard eventually finds himself at the Neptune Inn, where he meets Emilia Mae’s now 14-year-old daughter, Alice, who is giving away two-day-old baked goods. And of course, he meets Geraldine and Emilia Mae.
I won’t spoil your enjoyment of the book by telling you what happens next — just know Betsy Carter takes us on an exploration of love through much of the 20th century, from the excitement and passion of the new to the comfort of family in all its complexities. Her lost souls don’t necessarily get what they want, but in this rich and varied story they eventually find what they need.
Loraine Despres is the author of The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick and a national best seller, followed by The Southern Belle’s Handbook,Sissy LeBlanc’s Rules to Live By, and The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell all published by William Morrow/HarperCollins.