“No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.” ― Aristotle
Living your life in the shadow of genius can’t be very easy under the best of circumstances. Add a touch of eccentricity and a smidgeon of egoism to that genius, and then things can become very complex. So, I give a cheer when I run across a book that champions those who stand just outside the limelight. Writers of historical fiction must agree. These five books move that spotlight over just a tad to shine on the family and friends of the famous.
Gaynor Arnold gives Dorothea “Dodo” Gibson a chance to tell her side of the story in Girl in a Blue Dress: A Novel Inspired by the Life and Marriage of Charles Dickens. Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, the novel portrays Gibson’s marriage to an adored but self-centered Victorian author. The once-loved wife, modeled after Catherine Dickens, was humiliatingly discarded once years of childbearing had taken their toll.
Hadley Richardson was swept off her feet at age 28 by the charismatic writer Ernest Hemingway. The Paris Wife by Paula MacLain follows the Hemingways as they navigate the heady jazz and gin-infused atmosphere of 1920s expatriate Paris. As they rub shoulders with great names of the era, Hadley is challenged to keep her own identity while supporting his increasing fame. If you enjoyed this story, you might want to try Hemingway in Love: His Own Story by A. E. Hotchner.
Nancy Horan’s debut novel, Loving Frank, explores the life of a very different heroine from Hadley Richardson. Mamah Borthwick Cheney leaves her husband and children to flee to Europe with Frank Lloyd Wright. Since the renowned architect is also married, society is scandalized by the pair. Horan sensitively portrays the challenges Borthwick, a scholar, translator and feminist in her own right, faced as a mother, intellectual and partner to the talented but egotistical architect.
To be young, artistic, gifted and a member of the bohemian Bloomsbury Group, should be a wonderful thing. Vanessa Stephens, however, shared that distinction, with her troubled sister Virginia. Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar chronicles the loving, yet challenging relationship of painter Vanessa Bell and author Virginia Woolf in their early years. Steadfast and stable, Bell must look after her own personal and artistic growth while managing her sister’s obsessive loves and fragile mental health.
Although an aviatrix and author in her own right, Ann Murrow is known to history primarily as the wife of Charles Lindbergh. She met the aviator just after his legendary solo crossing of the Atlantic and threw herself wholeheartedly into his love of flight. His unprecedented celebrity and cold, somewhat domineering nature became less bearable to Murrow with time, particularly after the kidnapping and murder of their first child. Her quest to find and establish her own identity is movingly portrayed in The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin.
-Rebecca Wolff, City of Fairfax Regional Library