Janet Benton and Jill Santopolo: in times of chaos and concern, we need to honor one another's dreams

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The world is tilting. It is noisy and unsettled, roiling and in need of us, and we respond as we can, when we can, how.

In the midst of this now, we can't forget to honor each other. Our individual lives and ambitions matter just as much as they always did. Our dreams are still our dreams.

And so today I am sharing news of two adult debut novels—books that unfurled over the space of many years in the imaginations of two friends.

Janet Benton's Lilli de Jong (on sale in May from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) is the story of a goodhearted 19th-century Quaker who finds herself pregnant and without choices. Giving birth to her child in a charity for unwed mothers, Lilli refuses to abandon the little girl to an unknown fate, a decision that leaves mother and child in increasingly desperate straits. What doors will open to a smart, decent young woman with an infant in her arms? What compromises will Lilli make to keep the two alive? Where is kindness found?

I had a wonderful time reading Janet's book. It returned me to Philadelphia institutions that have fueled my own imagination and writing—that home for unwed mothers, the Blockley Almshouse, the clanging Baldwin Locomotives neighborhood, the Historic Rittenhousetown, the streets of Germantown, the marketplaces. Janet's research shows on every page, as does her deep understanding of motherhood and choice making, trust and its opposite. Lilli is a character you will root for and despair with, a writer (for Lilli is a writer and we are reading her diary pages) who crafts old Philadelphia like this:
Perhaps from gladness at escaping that harangue and at remembering how everyone is vulnerable to hardship, a tenderness welled up in me toward all the living. I found a stillness within our transitory state, relishing the passing folk intent on business or recreation, and loving the familiar clip-clop of horses, freshly curried and brushed, as they pulled grocery wagons house to house, stopping to deliver milk or ice or bread. The odors of meals escaped through windows, and hunger cut into me.
Jill Santopolo's The Light We Lost (on sale in May from G.P. Putnam's Sons) is a book about right now, a story about a woman's undying love for the man who knows and loves her best, but is never quite hers. This is a novel steeped in the melancholy of what might have been, a narrator who writes of her personal history from a suffused and brokenhearted present. This is a story that ponders the porous and saturating nature of love—the lines that can't be crossed, the lines that are, nonetheless, crossed. It is a novel of what if's, and it can't be helpeds. Lucy cannot rewrite the past, and maybe she doesn't want to rewrite or negate the past, even if the past hurts, even if the present cannot free her from her past. Short chapters, look back and ahead at once:
Sometimes we make decisions that seem right at the time, but later, looking back, were clearly a mistake. Some decisions are right even in hindsight. Even though everyone told me not to, and even knowing what happened afterward, I'm still glad I moved in with you that snowy day in January.
Why is it that books that break our hearts are books we love to read? Jill's book raises this question again, in all of the best ways.


Janet said...

Thank you for this, Beth! I'm honored to appear in your blog and so pleased that you enjoyed traveling through late nineteenth-century Philadelphia with Lilli. Warmly, Janet Benton

Victoria Marie Lees said...

They sound like wonderful books, Beth. I'll need to check them out. All the best to you in 2017. Hope you and your family are well.

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