Santa my dear husband gave me a first edition of Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady. This was a perfect gift; he knew I enjoyed two of Cather’s novels (click to read my reviews of The Professor’s House and One of Ours). If he was a very astute observer he would also have noticed 5 more Cathers on my shelves, mostly Viragos. In this case, he politely withheld comment on all those unread books, and further contributed to the “problem” with his gift. It’s nice to be married to someone who understands the tactile pleasure of books, and is thoughtful enough to go scouting for something unique.
My first edition has a pale green cover, with no dust jacket. The book is small: LibraryThing’s new physical description fields tell me it’s 20cm (8 inches) tall. And while it’s only 173 pages, the paper is quite thick, making this a short & chubby little book. It felt delicate in my hands, and I had to take care when turning the pages. Normally I bring my current read with me to work, but decided against it for this book, because Murphy’s Law would have caused something terrible to happen to it in my briefcase.
As for the novel itself, I enjoyed it well enough, although Cather is really at her best when describing the American west in all its pioneer-era glory. This book lacked that dimension, and didn’t tug at my heart as much as I think it was supposed to. Read on for my review …
Captain Daniel Forrester and his younger wife, Marian, live in a prairie town with tight connections to the Burlington railway. Mrs. Forrester maintains a distant relationship with most people, but her charm and good looks still have them eating out of her hand. Early in the story, Mrs. Forrester gives a group of schoolboys permission to play on her property, and she brings them food. One of the boys, Niel, develops a crush on her and Mrs. Forrester’s story is then told largely through his eyes.
Niel is a studious young man, reading classics and working to overcome his humble origins. Captain Forrester, a self-made man, counsels Niel that he need only work hard to get what he deserves in life:
All our great west has been developed from such dreams; the homesteader’s and the prospector’s and the contractor’s. We dreamed the railroads across the mountains, just as I dreamed my place on the Sweet Water. (p. 55)
As Niel matures he watches the Forresters, and pines for Mrs. Forrester who of course sees him as nothing more than a nice schoolboy. Niel’s illusions are shattered when Mrs. Forrester shows her own human weaknesses. Unfortunately, I failed to develop an emotional connection to these characters. The novel was improved by Cather’s beautiful descriptions of the landscape:
The sky was burning with the soft p[ink and silver of a cloudless summer dawn. The heavy, bowed grasses splashed him to the knees. All over the marsh, snow-on-the-mountain, globed with dew, made cool sheets of silver, and the swamp milk-week spread its flat, raspberry-coloured clusters. There was an almost religious purity about the fresh morning air, the tender sky, the grass and flowers with the sheen of early dew upon them. There was in all living things something limpid and joyous — like the wet, morning call of the birds, flying up through the unstained atmosphere. (p. 84)
This was a decent novel, just not one of Cather’s best.