A couple of months ago I had a fun conversation with my middle son and his wife about our teenage romance, about how I can remember writing "Laura Pearl" and "Mrs. Laura Pearl" in the margins of my high school notebooks, practicing my signature for the hoped-for future--even though I actually worried that my guy and I had met much too young and therefore would probably never end up married. I was convinced that he was going to go off to Notre Dame to find a prettier, smarter, more interesting girl and that would be the end of that. The night before he left for college, I cried my eyes out, sure that the best years of my life were coming to an end at the age of 18.
Never have I been so happy to be wrong about something!
Anyway, give me a novel where the heroine meets her true love when she's very young, and I am almost always hooked. But such novels in our modern age are often completely ruined by totally inappropriate and unnecessary scenes of physical intimacy that have no business in any story about young (unmarried!) love. Or even mature married love. What’s with the voyeurism?! It’s so hard to find works of fiction that are sweet and romantic without being unrealistically sappy, but are also clean--clean enough for even a teen to read. I’m always on the lookout for them.
Providentially, my husband and I happened to listen to a podcast about my favorite movie of all time, It's a Wonderful Life, and Donna Reed's daughter was on as a guest. Reed played the lovable Mary Hatch Bailey, wife of Jimmy Stewart's iconic George, of course; but her daughter also talked about some of the other movies in which her mother had had roles, and she mentioned a 1947 film called Green Dolphin Street. She explained the plot a bit and then added that it had been a novel first. Well, I was intrigued and immediately searched for the book online. Within a few days, a paperback copy had arrived on my doorstep.
Here is the synopsis on the back cover of Green Dolphin Street, written by Elizabeth Goudge and originally published in 1944:
"When Marianne Le Patourel meets William Ozanne in the 1830's on an island in the English Channel, she sets her heart on him. Her sister Marguerite, however, falls in love with him too. When his Navy career is cut short, William eventually settles in New Zealand and writes to Mr. Le Patourel to ask for Marguerite's hand in marriage--but in his nervousness he pens the wrong name in his letter. It is Marianne who arrives aboard the sailing ship Green Dolphin.
And so begins this sweeping novel that takes the characters on dramatic adventures from childhood through old age..."
Oh yeah, I was going to love this book. I just knew it. Though fictional, this historical novel is based on fact, on a man who really did write to ask for the hand of the girl he loved and ended up with the wrong sister, but made a good job of his marriage. Knowing that made the story even more interesting to me. And the writing is just magnificent. When I was only about 150 pages into the book, with more than 400 more to go, I starting picking out some of the early passages that I found achingly beautiful, planning that I would do a full review when I was finished. (I guess this would be a good time to warn you that if you're not a big reader and you're not passionate about the written word, you might be bored by the rest of this post!)
When plain and somewhat dour Marianne meets handsome, happy-go-lucky young William for the first time, Goudge writes: "She stood with her back against the door, stiff and ungainly, staring at him with great dark eyes that seemed to devour his face with the intensity of her gaze, and she could not move or speak...her heart did not delay to claim this male creature for her own. She was in love, in love at sixteen, desperately in love, as Juliet was, and with a boy who for all his height and strength and maturity was only a child of thirteen years. It was absurd. But then Marianne was never at any time in the least like other girls."
Who could resist this sweet boy? “William would always squander himself, giving back easily the affection and liking so easily given to him. 'You're good, William,' she cried impulsively. And for just one flashing moment, deep in her heart, she acknowledged his superiority...He was untidy, lazy, grubby, ill-brought-up, with a dangerous streak of weakness in him. But...she would make of him such a man as the world had never seen. And he would love her as she loved him; it was not possible that he should not when she loved him so terribly. He would die with her name on his lips."
The way Goudge describes William, a reader can easily understand why the two sisters are smitten with him. He’s handsome, but there’s more to him than that. On one hand, he is a rapscallion and a typical teenage boy; but on the other, he is just about the kindest-hearted person in the world: "the bitterness of her tone made William look at her in astonishment. He did not know what the trouble was, but he gripped her hand hard in sympathy.” And this: "his instinct told him she was vexed about something and his kindness longed to apply what balm he could." (Yes, Marianne, was vexed--because she knew that her lovely, joy-filled younger sister Marguerite loved William, too, and would probably win his heart; but she was determined to have him for her own anyway!)
William has a simple, childlike goodness that Marianne is attracted to, though she does not possess it herself; "he wanted...that everyone should be as happy as he was himself. He flirted, too, with a bland impartiality that was almost godlike. For he liked women as women, whether they were pretty or plain. If they were pretty he enjoyed their prettiness, and if they were plain he was sorry for them and flirted with them all the more that they should forget it."
Marguerite's happy demeanor, her pure, almost saintly goodness is a like a mirror image of William's. These two dear souls seem destined to be together; yet Marianne is determined to do whatever it takes to have William for herself. In the end, no wiles are necessary, for he mixes up the names of the two sisters who played such huge roles in his youth and because of his tragic blunder, Marianne ends up the winner.
Now that I've finished the book, I'll try not to give too much away, except to say that this is exactly the kind of story I relish: an epic tale that spans generations and explores the complexities of human relationships, exposing the deepest recesses of the hearts of the characters. Goudge is a gifted wordsmith, and I devoured each page of her beautiful prose greedily, rereading passages just to enjoy the way she puts things. And the plot has plenty of twists and turns to keep a reader on the edge of her seat. When I turned the last page, I was sorry to see it end. What an amazing gift of a story!
Although a terrible mistake leads to the marriage of William and Marianne, when Marguerite is the woman he really wanted, so much good does come out of it: each of these two women is "saved" by the man they both love. That is quite a Catholic theme: that God can make good come out of bad, that there is forgiveness and redemption possible for even the worst of transgressions. In the end, that one terrible mistake, that mix-up of names, not only saves the two sisters, but William himself as well. Had the right sister sailed to New Zealand on the Green Dolphin to become his bride, he might never have become the man he was meant to be.
As I said before, this novel is epic in scope. It is populated with real and relatable characters, complex people who struggle to overcome their weaknesses. There are conversions and reversions, and this novel plainly illustrates the power of the Catholic Faith to change lives. Throughout the story, the message is clear that sacrificial love is the best kind of love--that TRUE love must always "pay the price" (just as Christ paid the ultimate price with his life, out of love for us and for our salvation). Indeed, when the different characters learn to let go of pride and selfishness and live for the well-being and happiness of others, they grow in holiness and finally experience genuine joy.
Goodness, this is an extraordinary book, so engrossing and so, so moving. I cannot recommend it highly enough! I packed it to take along with me to NY this summer so that I can read it again--proof that it has moved onto my list of all-time favorite novels.
In fact, after enjoying Green Dolphin Street so much, I decided to try another novel by Elizabeth Goudge (who is apparently a favorite novelist of many, judging by the Amazon reviews of her books; how am I just finding her now?!). This one was called The Scent of Water, and oh my, again I was completely blown away--by the beauty of the writing and by the author's keen insights regarding human nature and relationships. While not a book about young love, it is very much a book about love, in all its forms: married love, parental love, love of God, and His infinite capacity of love for us--even about learning to love oneself. This amazing book deals with the complexities and frailties of the human condition, with such tenderness and compassion.
There are so many beautiful reflections in this book about faith, about loneliness and heartache, about learning the truth about ourselves and the people we thought we knew. It's just the most wonderful novel, beautifully written, by an author I've come to love so much. I recommend it highly--especially for fellow introverts who like nothing better than to get lost in a good book. As Goudge puts it so perfectly when Mary is getting tired of dealing with an overly talkative houseguest, "What one wanted when exhausted by the noise and impact of physical bodies was not no people, but disembodied people; all these denizens of beloved books who could be taken to one's heart and put away again, in silence, and with no hurt feelings." [Sigh.] She gets me!
Elizabeth Goudge's father was an Anglican rector, so I don't believe she was a Catholic; but her works reflect so many themes that are right in line with Catholic teachings. In The Scent of Water, an old man who suffers from mental illness and therefore knows just what it means to share Our Lord's Cross says to Mary, "My dear, love, your God, is a Trinity. There are three necessary prayers and they have three words each. They are these. 'Lord have mercy. Thee I adore. Into Thy hands.'" Powerful stuff! I'm finding that books by this prolific English author are just plain good for my soul.
Are you looking for compelling summer reading? Then my advice to you is to read one of these books (Green Dolphin Street is my favorite). I don't think you'll be disappointed. But maybe you need more than just one book to read while you're sitting by the pool or the lake. If you're looking for more recommendations, check out Carolyn's link-up!