I had no idea what to expect from A Beauty. Before this book, I had never heard of Connie Gault. But, when I read the premise, it sounded like something I would like, so I went with my instincts. And, I am happy that I did.
A Beauty takes us to the dry, dusty prairies of the 1930s. Elena is alone; her mother died when she was very young, and her father has just left her without any hint of where he has gone. She can only assume he is not coming back. He has left her with nothing, except for the gossip of the neighbours.
Everyone is wondering where Mr. Huhtala has gone, and whether or not he is coming back. Most of them believe that the best course of action for Elena is to marry – that’ll take care of things. So, when Elena finds herself at the town dance, dancing with a charming stranger, and he asks her if he can take her home, she goes with him. And, she doesn’t come back.
What must you be thinking to just take off with a strange man in the 1930s, a time when something like that would be quite a scandal? And, at any time, it would be dangerous. Maybe she simply felt like she had nothing left to lose; she wanted a new beginning, maybe to find herself.
Elena and Bill travel from town to town in his Lincoln roadster, visiting restaurants and hotels along the way. Elena seems to be enjoying new experiences and the feeling of freedom, although we never really know what she is thinking. Bill certainly doesn’t know what to make of her, but is happy to be with her all the same. When events suddenly change again, one thing is for sure – Elena has proven to be full of surprises.
Even though I originally requested this book because of the promise of a road trip, the reason I ended up liking it so much was because of the characters; such wonderful, interesting characters. At each town along the way, we get to know a new set of them before Elena and Bill even arrive. In fact, I would argue that we get to know some of these people better than we ever know Elena.
The characters are what charmed me, and drew me in. There are nosey neighbours, gossipy girls, secret lovers, run-down hotel owners, a Chinese man with a keen eye for human nature, a highly respected father-son team who own the general store, and 10-year-old Ruth. Ruth becomes a big part of the book; the one who ties everyone else together.
Elena is a mystery. She’s a mystery to the characters in the book, as well as to the readers. She’s the person who attracts the attention of everyone, but no one knows why. Without meaning to, she has an effect on people. In this way, she is the center of the book, with the other characters revolving around her.
It’s amusing watching people enjoy themselves. To stand back, watching them. Those first few days that summer, when Elena Huhtala was in her heyday, the people of Gilroy looked different from the way they’d looked before. The women looked as if they’d pressed their cotton dresses that very morning, and the men looked as if they’d just polished their shoes… All up and down that wide street, on the post office steps, at the garage door, down at the corner in the shade of the hotel, people were out chatting with their neighbours. They joked, they laughed out loud, tossing their heads back. In a manner previously unknown on the streets of Gilroy, they flirted with one another.
It is through Ruth that we get insights on what is going on in town, and how Elena’s presence is causing a stir in the community. Elena has a big impact on Ruth for such a short visit; one that will last the rest of Ruth’s life.
… the idea came to me that they’d invented her, or they’d found her somewhere and placed her on their bench, and now they were watching to see how we’d all take it. I suppose that was because she was so foreign, so different from anyone who’d ever stepped into my world, it seemed she had to be a creation rather than a person who’d grown up higgledy-piggledy like the rest of us.
This paragraph from the book jacket sums up the themes in the book nicely.
… A Beauty is at once poignant and razor-sharp, moving and mysterious, as it explores the meaning of home and belonging, the nature of forgiveness, and the ways of coming to love.
Because of the myriad of characters in this book, it is able to explore these themes in more than one way, with more than one character.
One thing this book made me think about is how much some of us are haunted by the past; some more than others. And, what I really want to know is more about Elena. Why did she do the things she did, and how did she feel about it all? And, what would her life have been like if she hadn’t made her seemingly sudden and bold decisions? What was her life like having made them? I’m not sure if we are supposed to know any of these answers – I think we are meant to be left wondering abut her and the dust she left behind.
We are given these small clues:
She’d seen what happened to people who dwelt on the past. They’d stranded themselves between whatever had happened and whatever might have been. They tied themselves to people and places they should have long since left. She’d always refused to be one of them.
And how useless it is to be sorry, she thought, how utterly, unforgivably useless.
*Thank you to the publisher for sending me this book in exchange for an honest review.