Leeway Cottage

By complete coincidence, a large number of the books that I read in the summer of 2005 were stories about love in a time of war. This is the third in a series of four book reviews on that theme. The first two were Antanas Sileika’s Woman in Bronze and Frances Itani’s Deafening.

Leeway Cottage by Beth GutcheonBeth Gutcheon’s Leeway Cottage is a book which is enhanced by the use of a unique narrative structure. It is comprised of a layering and entwining of two fairly disparate stories*. One of these stories is among the greatest (and yet, not widely known) triumphs of World War II — the spontaneous formation of a grassroots underground in Denmark which managed to rescue nearly all of that country’s 7,000 Jewish citizens from the occupying German army.

The second story is a multigenerational American family epic, folding itself around the Second World War and rife with the complex web of oft-dysfunctional relationships characteristic to this genre.

The WWII story is the most intense and enthralling part of the book, both because of the high stakes involved but also because of the depth and emotional resonance of the characters depicted. It also functions as a history lesson, exploring the remarkable strength and bravery of a small country whose people are, generally speaking, too modest to broadcast the story of their triumph.
 
Not that there aren’t plenty of interesting things happening within the family saga. It’s just unfortunate that so many of those “interesting things” involve characters and actions that are alternately small, petty and infuriating (with a few notable cracks for the light to get in), and are made to seem even more so given that they are juxtaposed against acts of wartime heroism and tragedy. But then, that contrast is definitely key to several not-so-subtle points that Gutcheon is intentionally and rather successfully making.
 
By exploring the marriage of two extremely different characters — Laurus, a quiet, peace-loving Dane and sensitive citizen of the world, and Sydney, a rich, sheltered and narcissistic American with little perspective on the world beyond her own small circle — Gutcheon also looks, metaphorically, at the differences between two cultures, both during the second World War and in the years after. 

Gutcheon is also fascinated with probing a “certain type of 20th century American marriage, in which the husband and wife, as they have grown and as life has changed them, appear by mid-life to be so different as people that outsiders (or insiders — their own children) can’t understand how they chose each other in the first place.”

A great deal of the latter part story is framed around Laurus’ vision of heaven. He believes that when he dies, he will see a film of his life, only with all the missing pieces filled in, all the questions answered. But what is most revealing is just which questions are the most haunting to Laurus. The answer seems to be surprising to some readers, but I found it ingenious. The final question that haunts Laurus is truly the missing pieces of the puzzle, tying together all the pieces of Gutcheon’s meta-level commentary, and revealing both why Sydney was never able to truly understand her husband, and why he was able to love her fully in spite of that fact.

From the archives, written August 6th, 2005.

*A tangential side note, from June 22nd, 2010: I think Wally Lamb was attempting to create a similarly entwined past/present narrative in his most recent novel, The First Hour I Believed. Unfortunately, I did not find it nearly as successful. The net result was two individually compelling stories that I just didn’t feel were entwined enough. As I told a friend shortly after I read the book: “It just kind of felt like two or three stories loosely stitched together because they were the three stories the author wanted to tell, not because they necessarily all belong in the same narrative.”

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