April 3, 2009

Summit Avenue by Mary Sharratt

This is the story of a young German immigrant, Kathrin, who comes to the U.S. just before WWI. She grew up in the Black Forest, a place no one can possibly think of without imagining all sorts of magic and enchantment. Her first two years in Minneapolis she shares a room with her worldly cousin Lotte and works in a flour mill. But then she is hired by a wealthy widow, Violet, to translate German fairy tales for a book she is writing. Violet lives in a beautiful castle-like mansion, complete with turreted towers, stone covered with ivy, and a walled garden. Violet takes Kathrin under her wing and shares with her the Russian fairy tales she learned growing up. Kathrin finds these tales and their framework framing her own life.

The first 88 pages of this book were absolutely magical. Sharratt took the things I loved about my favorite childhood books (A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, etc.) and turned them into a story for grown-ups. I could just see myself sitting in a garden on a spring sunset, eating soft cheese with fruit and drinking wine, listening to the insects and pondering the wonder of life spread out before me. I hated to put the book down and go to sleep because it was just so delicious.

But then it turned into a lesbian romance.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. But it just ruined it for me. Not because of the lesbian stuff inherently, but because that turn of events was just so freaking typical of modern literature that it was an annoyance and a disappointment. It could have been a great book, the same book, without that. But Sharratt just couldn't help herself.

I really liked the way this book was organized. It was set up to mimic Violet's fairy tale studies. Kathrin starts out as the Maiden, the Virgin, her finger poised just over the spindle of the spinning wheel, bursting with adventure and potential. Violet writes about how in fairy tales, a heroine is only a heroine at this point of her life. Once she surrenders to marriage and motherhood she is no longer her own, and goes into a sort of dormancy, until her children are grown and she is widowed. Then she is the Crone, the sorceress, the enchantress, there to help or to terrify as she chooses, a heroine again, but never to the same degree as when she was a maiden. Kathrin goes through these stages as well, and Violet's theories are reflected in her life.

I really loved this book, except for the lesbian bit. Why oh why did she have to do that???


  1. That's funny. Whenever I remember this book, I keep thinking about how much the double ring ceremony (which would have been highly unlikely considering their circumstance and time) irked me. I've forgotten all about the lesbian element, although that didn't bother me much; it seemed fairly plausible to me, especially after reading Tipping the Velvet.

  2. I read her other book, the Vanishing Point, and loved it. I will have to check this one out at least for the first part. I think she's a great author.


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