After a whirlwind of vampires and witches from my last read, I was looking for a more realistic love story when I stumbled on this “lost treasure” by Jetta Carleton. Carleton is known for her novel The Moonflower Vine, published in the early sixties. It had been her only known work, up until thirteen years after her death, when this novel was unearthed. With the story taking place in 1940s Missouri (including a mention of my hometown!), Clair de Lune was an obvious choice for me.
The story opens with Allen Liles, a new graduate and dreamer of a life not spent in the Ozarks. She is persuaded by her mother, however, to take a position with a small nearby college and devote her life to teaching. Once she is situated in her new role in academia, Allen does not see herself as an accepted member of the faculty. Apart from interactions with her dean and a rather flirty but older collegiate, Allen sidesteps out of unnecessary obligations and retreats to her books, poetry, and daydreams. That is until her mother encourages Allen to stand out from the faculty and start an extra seminar, in addition to her other classes. It is there that she meets George and Toby, two students who are instantly friendly with Allen.
When the period of the seminar is no longer long enough to satisfy George and Toby’s thirst for knowledge, Allen begins to spend time outside of class with them. At first they walk her home, to her secluded apartment some number of blocks from the college. But then, even that distance wasn’t enough. Allen, swept up in the excitement of her new friends, invites them inside. Nights that follow are filled with potato chips and Renoir, DeBussy and headdresses. On the warmest of the spring nights, they gallivant the streets like three bohemians, playing tag, stealing forks to eat pie on the sidewalk, and disregarding every rule imaginable. But when a flicker of passion arises between Allen and one of the boys, the seriousness of the matter comes crashing down on her, jeopardizing her role in the college as well as her reputation.
Taking place in pre-WWII America, it is interesting to see the naivety of Allen and the nation juxtaposed. As the farmers and the young men make up excuses about a possible war-time draft, George and Toby scramble for a future they may not get to live. And Allen, so uninformed of current events and blind to the obvious wrong of her actions, is forced to face a future she did not plan for.
Aside from the references to Missouri, I didn’t much care for this novel. I didn’t see how Allen could carry on in the ways she did. It is a familiar story of dreamers though; the life that one leads is always drastically different than the way he/she had always envisioned it. For whatever reason, Allen’s every decision takes her away from her dreams. That may be the saddest part…how real that is for many people. I guess it depends on how much our dreams matter to us. Are they something we are actively striving for? Or do they exist only to console us through the life we end up living?
I’m still (oddly) a little curious about Carleton’s first novel, but have yet to decide if I will read it. If it is anything like Clair de Lune, I’m sure it is thought-provoking and stomach-clenching. For Clair de Lune crawls under your skin. It begs the reader to evaluate his/her own life and ask bluntly, are you living the life you imagined? And if you aren’t, are you willing to change it?
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