A sorrowful, masterful fairy tale

Fate is the protagonist in Hoffman's brilliant tale of love gone wrong

Review Novel

January 14, 2007|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

Skylight Confessions

Alice Hoffman

Little, Brown & Co. / 262 pages / $24.95

Magic and superstition are mainstays in the lives of most of us, even if we are reluctant to admit it. We believe in fate, in luck, in worlds beyond our own, in the power of love to alter our lives. We absent-mindedly toss the spilled salt over our shoulder, avoid the open ladder, step away from the black cat, take care with the number 13. We have talismans we hope will protect us or bring us good fortune. We wish on stars and pluck the petals of daisies and pray for true love to find us and lead us to happiness.

Alice Hoffman's characters are like us: They know that the 21st century is not immune to the power of superstition, fatedness and the magic that fuels love (and also loss). Hoffman's latest novel, Skylight Confessions, about the magic of love and the perils of fate, may be the saddest book she's ever written, but it is also one of her very best.

Arlyn Singer is only 17 when her beloved father, a Connecticut sea captain, dies a grim death in their home. Her mother died when she was three. The orphaned Arlie stands outside on the chill April night of his funeral and imagines that the first man she meets will be the love of her life, her fate, her rescue. Thus, when John Moody, a Yale architectural student on his way to a party, takes a wrong turn and ends up in front of the Singers' ramshackle cottage, Arlie gives herself to him, body and soul.

With her long, beautiful red hair, her milky skin that smells of pears and the 64 freckles on her face, Arlyn is unconventionally beautiful and when she appears to John in her kitchen, naked and open, the two end up spending three euphoria-filled days in bed together. Then he wakes up from his sensual dream and high-tails it away from her and back to Yale.

But Arlyn knows her fate. She packs up the cottage, sells what she can and takes what little remains in her one suitcase and heads off to find John Moody and the life she knows awaits them both.

John tries to avoid and ignore and even flee Arlie, but fate is persistent. The two end up marrying - far too young, of course - and soon baby Sam is born. And John's resentment of his lost chances takes deep and implacable root.

Sam is a special child whose one love in life is his mother, who dotes on him. Only Arlie knows his specialness and talents. Together they bond against John's absences and indifference. When John's father dies, the Moodys move to the Connecticut architectural wonder, the Glass Slipper, that was John's childhood home and the grand statement of his architect father. The house is also a statement about what John has failed to achieve - and anyone looking can see what is wrong with this second wave of Moodys.

The house is all glass and metaphor. Birds fly into it. The panes dirty easily. The Snow brothers come to clean the endlessly filthy glass and soon Arlie realizes that she might have been wrong in her assessment that John was her fate. Perhaps it is George Snow, the younger window cleaner, who is her fate instead.

When Arlie's affair is discovered, she breaks it off, fearing John will take the 6-year-old Sam from her. Then she finds she is pregnant. She names her daughter Blanca - for her lover, Snow, who never forgets her and whose last gift to her is a string of pearls which may or may not be magic.

Arlie's tragedies are not over, however. While nursing her daughter she uncovers a hard stone of a tumor in her breast. By 25 she is dead.

Sam never recovers from the loss of his mother, whom Blanca barely remembers. At 16, he is surly and drug-addicted and in love with the idea of flying, like the magical bird people his mother told him about. He may or may not be suicidal. When Meredith, a young art historian, happens upon John outside a psychic's on a hot summer afternoon in Manhattan, she follows him to the Glass Slipper and talks Sam down from the ledge and herself into a job.

Meredith has her own secrets and losses. At 28 she is missing something, but is unsure what. She takes the job of nanny to the two Moody children and becomes a new center in the household that is falling apart under John's second wife, Cynthia, Arlie's former friend with whom John was having an affair while his wife was dying.

Meredith and Sam have a bond, but it is not strong enough to save him. A peripatetic artist who goes on painting rampages throughout this and that place, Sam is an urban artist, painting the wild dreams he has everywhere he goes. Soon his drug addiction takes over and he attempts (despite the ministrations of Meredith and Amy, the young girlfriend much like his dead mother) to fly off the top of a building in Manhattan.

Blanca flees everything - her family and all her losses - and ends up running a children's bookstore in London and writing about fairy tales and their metaphor for life. When John Moody dies suddenly, after years of being haunted by Arlie, she returns to the Glass Slipper.

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