"Clair de Lune" by Jetta Carleton
Reviewed by David Marshall James
Readers who embrace a writer's supposedly sole published novel hope beyond hope that a "left-behind" work will surface after that writer's death.
Such is the case with this novel, bequeathed by author Jetta Carleton to a close friend, and now coming to light upon the heels of a renaissance of interest in Carleton's 1962 book, "The Moonflower Vine."
Carleton tinkered with "Clair de Lune" for several decades, and the clarity, thoughtfulness, and artful thematic structuring of the work render it highly readable and worthwhile, a book that strikes universal chords.
"Clair de Lune" offers many marvelously nostalgic elements, set during the months leading up to America's entry into World War II.
"Will we or won't we go to war?" That becomes the increasingly posed question as one European country after another falls, while Britain teeters precariously on the brink as well.
Meanwhile, Allen Liles, a first-year junior-college English instructor in a southwest Missouri town, is undergoing a personal struggle-- an unbeknownst-to-her-at-the-time metamorphosis-- that leads her into a much-forbidden romance with one of her students.
For a brief, intense period during the headily aromatic springtime of 1941, she enters a sort of Arcadia-- a personal Eden-- exotic as the words of all the bards and poets she teaches to this farmgirl who has followed the strictures of her Mother-who-knows-best, a retired teacher who views the profession as the only viable one for her daughter, who has one-upped her mother by earning a master's degree in English literature.
However, Allen quickly perceives that the female faculty members at the junior college are horders and harbingers of borken dreams. She also discovers that the male teachers are mostly in the same boat, bound to support their families and/or expected to continue climbing the ladder of academe, hoping to knock down the fuddy-duddies above them.
The lone faculty member who seems set on a course of escape is the country-clubbing, Episcopal Church-pewed, golden girl of a music instructor, set to wed the dashing scion of a local banking family.
Allen is juxtaposedly jealous of their engagement insofar as it is an adult, sanctioned institution, laced with public trappings in which she cannot indulge with her forbidden romance. Moreover, Allen realizes that marriage is not the ultimate "escape hatch"; rather, it sets a bond as restrictive as the ties with her mother.
With its sumptuous nostalgia and universal themes of evolving and re-examining old ties-- of testing societal strictures-- as one seeks one's niche in the adult world, "Clair de Lune" ought to attract readers from sixteen to beyond seventy, for many years to come.
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