Until I read Rhode Island, I had no idea it had a rich coast of marshland like my home state of Georgia, 900 miles to the south. I had seen the title Spartina on a list of National Book Award winners and was startled when I saw it was based in Rhode Island rather than the southeastern or mid-Atlantic coast, which I thought was Spartina grass’s northern limit. The Lowland also features the coastal beauty of Rhode Island’s marshes and estuaries, where fresh water meets the sea. Because of these marshes, the beaches, the ocean scenes, and the marine life that appear in these books, I loved reading Rhode Island. I’d like to visit and explore it more in real life now.
Novel: The Lowland
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri, raised in South Kingstown, RI
Setting: Providence, Rhode Island and Calcutta (India)
In The Lowland, Subhash, a quiet, stable Indian boy moves from the estuarine areas of Calcutta to those of Rhode Island to study marine chemistry. His brother Udayan – the risky, idealistic revolutionary – stays behind and gets himself killed. Udayan’s early, violent death shapes the next 50 years of the lives of the people around him: his brother, wife, parents, and unborn child.
Filled with beautiful descriptions of both Rhode Island and Calcutta, and especially of the estuarine life within them, The Lowland was a comfort in many ways.
On cloudy days, at intervals, the sound of a foghorn pierced the air, as conch shells were blown in Calcutta to ward off evil.
In other ways, The Lowland was full of sorrow. It shows how a single moment can break people for the rest of their years: they can be alive in that they breathe and move physically through space, but dead to the beauty of the life they still have.
What struck me most about this book is how magnificently Lahiri illustrates the ways death can distort life. The Lowland is a masterpiece for that.
The tree seemed more overwhelming when it lay on the ground. Its proportions frightening, once it no longer lived.
Novel: The Book That Matters Most
Author: Ann Hood, born West Warwick, RI
Setting: Providence, Rhode Island
When Ava’s husband leaves her and she’s desperate to cope, she begs Cate for an invitation to the library’s hard-to-enter book club: there are only 10 spots in it. Ava lucks out and gets to join, and the assignment for the year is for each member to pick the book that matters most to them. The book club will read and discuss it as a group.
As Ava navigates her divorce and a bad-girl daughter gone missing in Europe, memories of the summer both her sister and mother died keep coming back to her, along with memories of the book she read and re-read that entire summer to get through it. That book was the book that matters most to her. Finding copies of it for the club to read proved almost impossible, and led her on a quest that ultimately answered questions she’d been asking all her life.
Though sometimes unrealistic, like how easily one character recovers from a heroin addiction, this was a quick and fun read with a love of books at its heart.
Author: John Casey
Setting: 1980s coast of Rhode Island
I have a soft spot in my heart for authors who capture the essence of the marshy world on the edge of the Atlantic ocean. Until I read Spartina, the only author who moved me and made me feel like, “Yes, they know the marsh, they get it,” is South Carolina’s Pat Conroy. Now I know John Casey gets it as well.
Unfortunately, sometimes you have to take the bad with the good. After reading this book about a crotchety, Rhode Island waterman who chases a younger woman who gives him her full attention, and therefore cheats on his exhausted, neglected wife while she does all the work at home and raises their children, it is no surprise that the author himself, a professor at UVA, has been accused by his students of sexual harassment. I read the book, its style, and how easily the husband cheats without being held accountable by the people he hurt, and think, yep, I can see that. I can see this author being an asshole.
Spartina is filled with scenes of marshes and mud, sea birds and lobster pots, and a mariner’s life on the water. It is a story of a lost, working class white man in New England who is trying to find himself, and does so in the crucible of a storm at sea. This scene — of a man saving his boat from a hurricane by boarding it and riding out the storm by meeting it head on, in all of its violence of howling wind, mountainous waves, slashing rain, and darkness — is one of those scenes from a book I will always remember.