The Honey Thief

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The Life that Develops In-Between: On Elizabeth Graver’s The End of the Point

The End of the Point, the new novel by Elizabeth Graver, is one of those rare books that accomplishes a great deal without seeming to call attention to itself. The novel has recently been longlisted for the National Book Award and comes from a long line of distinguished work from Elizabeth Graver, who has been writing acclaimed novels and stories for several decades. The End of the Point feels vital and real because Graver takes an eloquent, balanced look at the power of place and time and the evolution of a family of flawed but relatable characters, building a subtle symphony that unfolds over decades.

It all starts with the Porter family’s summer house in Ashaunt Point, a fictional place located in the quite real Buzzard’s Bay in Massachusetts, “barely two miles long, half a mile wide, hardly an appendage, more a stub, a neck without a head.” Before the narrative officially begins, the novel opens with a lovely kind of prose overture, evoking not only the landscape but the ancient historical presences embedded within it. We read, in a kind of free-flowing third person, about the treaty signed for the land itself hundreds of years earlier, a bargain for William Bradford and John Standish at “thirty yards of cloth, eight moose skins, fifteen axes, fifteen hoes.” Graver’s prose is imbued with a tangible feeling for the way the past haunts the present:

The place breeds [nostalgia] — for this old house, this old couch, this old tribe, one-speed bicycles, driftwood naturally distressed. At one time, a salt works stood at the foot of the Point. At another, a bootlegging outfit. Table salt hardens here. Books mildew. Diaries flip open…Sometimes arrowheads or bits of pottery and china show up in the churned soil of the few fields still farmed. How fine they would look set in the antique printing box above the bed made up with white Wamasutta sheets, to the left of the nightstand where the clock has stopped again.

Nostalgia is an interesting word. Massachusetts has been on complex terms with its own history pretty much from the start. John Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill” mutating into witch trials and hysteria a couple generations later, for one example. For what it’s worth, the Commonwealth can get a bit too hung up on a hub-of-the-universe reputation that tends to appear closer in rearview than it really is. Nostalgia and anger are “kissing cousins,” as the novel’s first pages aphoristically suggest. Sometimes it seems like nostalgia’s another one of those things in life that isn’t about what you do, so much as the way that you do it. As a longtime Bostonian with a little less than 300 years of New England blood in my veins, I’m all set on Pilgrims and Cabots and Kennedys for the time being and am more than happy to give arrowheads and beach wood a fresh look.

Stepping onto this landscape, we meet the well-to-do Porter family in the war-torn year of 1942, in the midst of the summer that will set in motion so much of the rest of their lives. There’s the imperious yet fiercely ambitious mother (deferentially referred to as “Mrs. Porter”), her spunky daughters, the prodigious and rebellious Helen (“the hellion“) and Dossy, and the youngest daughter, Janie, whose ill luck that summer will haunt her and the family for years to come. And then there’s Bea, their loyal nanny. Still nursing wounds from her emigration from Scotland and her mother’s death, she takes an interest in “Smitty,” an American soldier, and proceeds to start one of the most heartbreakingly awkward courtships I’ve read in a long time. Her desire and apprehension mixed with her sense of duty to the Porters and her general self-consciousness is as cringe-worthy as it is familiar. As a reader, I wanted her to be more poised than she was, though reading her scenes made it clear why it isn’t quite so simple — it never is.

Helen, in the way of brainy hellions everywhere, eventually hotfoots it to Switzerland to breathe the pure serene of Old Europe. Her diaries and letters home make up the entirety of chapter three. Graver modulates Helen’s change from impulsive and hyperbolic to intellectually probing with subtlety and skill. Part of what’s interesting about Helen is that even though she’s perfectly equipped to rise to the top of her chosen field, the reader gradually gets a deepening, sickening sense of her societal limitations. Whether or not Helen is willing to accept it, as a woman in the ’50s, even in ostensibly progressive Europe, the social structure she lives in stays entrenched. Even if she diligently studies languages and architecture to the very best of her ability, her efforts don‘t get her as far as they rightfully should. Seeing this from Helen’s perspective through her own eyes adds ironic, tragic distance between who she is and the person she would like to be.

And then there’s her son Charles, a promising lad who simultaneously gets both a little more and a little less out of the ’70s than he bargained for. Charles’s story and perspective takes up the majority of the remainder of the narrative. Similar to his mother, though in a different social context, his abilities and his ambitions are not necessarily in perfect sync. The pressure he feels to perform, to achieve, and to live up to his family’s expectations manifest themselves in some rather unexpected and harrowing ways. Graver has said in interviews that one of her thematic interests is how parents and children relate to one another, the love and the misunderstandings that develop over time, and this particular kind of tension runs through each character like a tripwire.

It wouldn’t do for me to give away too much of the plot, since part of the pleasure in reading The End of the Point is in seeing how the Porters grow tenaciously as individuals over time. Graver is a master at showing how beautifully ordinary people survive the twists and turns of everyday life. There is a botanical theme running through the novel from the epigraph through the chapter headings, and this contributes to a sense of character development as an organic process. The Porters don’t move upward toward some kind of transcendent epiphany. Graver doesn’t preach to the reader or suggest some kind of tidy resolution is right around the bend. Instead, she shows how the Porter family holds fiercely to their own, finding ways to try and keep the sanctuary of Ashaunt real to them, despite the inevitable exhaustion of time and the warp of history.

It’s a unique and refreshing narrative choice on her part, since it seems to me that the tendency with a multigenerational family saga is to make each character a kind of talking vessel for the author’s abstract ideals or concepts. As in her excellent earlier novel The Honey Thief, Graver doesn’t give in to the temptation to romanticize or allegorize her characters to death. This is a big help, especially when you‘re talking about a family saga. Unless you’re kicking it with the Compsons or Buendías, say, it usually takes a little bit of readerly patience to get through a multigenerational family story. One has to be on one’s game, in terms of care and attention. Nobody wants to spend several hundred pages with a bunch of allegorical figures sitting around the dinner table and passing each other the salt.

Graver’s novel has the impact that an ambitious novel can have without the uninviting heft or pomposity. Her characters aren’t heroic so much as human, not larger than life but humble with actuality, and the choices they make feel entirely their own. Graver respects the integrity of her characters and it shows. After a major traumatic episode, Charlie seeks peace and shelter by holing up in Ashaunt, and after a psychiatrist sensibly reminds him that “You can’t fix yourself by going somewhere else” Charlie responds, in all honestly, that “Ashaunt isn’t someplace else.” By the time you’ve spent a few chapters with the Porters, one appreciates how this remark is more poignant than even Charlie himself realizes.

Graver also possesses the rare gift of writing with evocative, poetic ambience and manages to convey the sense of time passing without making this overly explicit or gimmicky for the reader. I happened to be reading To the Lighthouse alongside Graver’s novel and the similarities begin but by no means end here. Graver, like Woolf, is as interested in the minutiae of human (especially family) interaction as she is in describing the ineffable in palpably lyrical language.  It’s no mean feat to find a balance between the two, but Graver gracefully transitions from one mode to the other at several points. In this, as in much of the novel, her sense of literary proportion is exquisite.

One of the aspects of Graver’s achievement is her ability to strike a distinct authorial balance between sympathy and judgment. It’s easy to feel kindly towards devoted, reserved Bea or for anguished, confused Charles, but at same time they are written in a way that transcends easy sentimentality. It’s not just that the reader roots for them (and it’s hard not to), it’s more that the characters feel like people you know, with all the complexities that follow. The fact that Graver doesn’t pathologize the Porters or hammer down moral condemnation over the choices they make means that she leaves space for each of them to let their humanity emerge in all its awkward, modest glory.

Samuel Butler once wrote that “Life is like learning to play the violin and trying to give concerts at the same time.” The Porters keep being interesting because the reader doesn’t feel like their fates are sealed from the start. Every member of the Porter family, like human beings everywhere, is fording their way through constantly evolving and unexpected situations. There’s the life you imagine, the life you live, and the life that develops in-between. In this sense, one way to read this novel is as a series of solo concerts done in close proximity, whose voices weave in and out of each other over decades, changing tone and mood and key. They may not always hit the proper notes, or have perfect pitch, but still they keep singing.

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