Bel Canto


Summertime has arrived in Maureen Howard’s tetralogy of seasonal novels, now three-quarters complete, but the blue skies and warm winds here comprise the unpredictable weather of mourning for an unabridged life—lived to its longest if not, perhaps, its fullest. Just a few pages into The Silver Screen comes the passing one sunny morning of ancient Isabel Murphy, née Maher, once a silent-screen starlet on the verge who threw it all over for homemaking in suburban Connecticut. “Not Celtic, a Chekhov beauty, one of his lost ladies living in exile,” reckons her elderly son, Joe Murphy. “She was never one of us.”

As Joe well knows, there is no dependable “us” in this milieu—each character reveals aspects of the stray, the tagalong, or the skilled imposter, pacing through the awkward blocking of a miscast role. There’s Isabel, capable yet unmoored as first the ascendant Hollywood sweetheart and then the vaguely eccentric housewife—energetic and friendless, usually lost in a book or planning edifying “excursions” for the kids. Joe, the dutiful but doubting Jesuit priest, milling sheepishly on the threshold between childhood and adulthood like any good son delivered straight from adoring mother to the Virgin Mary. Rita, sister to Joe and “improbable daughter” of the celluloid vision, sullen and fathomless behind her thick glasses, awaiting Bel’s demise with bovine composure until she can sell the house and join her stoolie beau in the Witness Protection Program. And Gemma Riccardi, loner girl of dubious paternity, who found a surrogate mother in Bel and then uncomfortable renown in another speechless art, photography.

Howard’s pensive, bittersweet canon swims with Chekhov beauties stroking through Woolfian streams of memory-sensation, and her devotees will recognize Joe from A Lover’s Almanac (1998): the mysterious “man on the left” in a snapshot that Artie Freeman discovered in his grandmother’s recipe file, a spectral light-trace of the father he never met. Artie’s spectacular millennial breakup with true love Louise Moffett opened the Almanac (an exquisite double helix of wintry romance lost and found), and the couple’s hard-earned domestic equilibrium provided the final movement of 2001’s Big As Life (subtitled “Three Tales for Spring”), though they go fondly missing from The Silver Screen. But the absence most fiercely present, as always, is the lacuna called Fiona O’Connor: Joe’s only lover, Artie’s enigmatic mother, irresistible and impossible, the flame-haired ghost. Years before a speedboat killed her, Fiona vanished from Joe’s life as quickly and wordlessly as Isabel disappeared from the cinema.

The title misleads a bit—movie love doesn’t live here. Amid the novel’s ample cinephilic grace notes you can hear the flipping pages of a reference book, and Howard’s deployment of Yum-Yum’s wondrous solo in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado (a favorite of Bel’s) strives for the plangency of Mike Leigh’s G&S masterpiece Topsy-Turvy but merely echoes it. The book confronts a bigger but also, happily, a richer and intriguingly insoluble problem in bravely dramatizing what a buddy of Joe’s calls “accidie, a sort of spiritual melancholy, loss of grace.” Howard enacts the hazy, fly-buzzing torpor of yawning, yearning dog days, evoking the Henry Allen poem that envisions “a summer house superimposed/on firefly memory in fall when it’s been closed.” When Gemma visits Bel’s old home, now the ironic plaything of a fashion snapper, she sees nothing to photograph: not the new, dildo-shaped tower; not Bel’s garden erased by stone. Further off there’s the cemetery, where the view of the highway has become the view of the mall. The Silver Screen patiently unearths the paved-over ruins of a family agon, the dying fall of misspent or accidental lives—their ghostly imprints trapped as if in the amber of acetate and emulsion.