Death, betrayals, hard times, violent storms, seemingly dead-end situations with a spark of hope: Sally Cabot Gunning’s new book, Painting the Light, has everything her readers have come to expect.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, the novel — like previous titles Gunning has written — examines the ways that society kept women constrained and under the control of men. It was a difficult time for any woman with an independent streak, and especially hard for those who challenged the laws and customs that kept them in their place. Even riding a bicycle was regarded as a highly questionable activity.
The protagonist is Ida Russell, a young woman who has lost her family in a drowning accident but is managing to make her way in the world. She’s also a talented aspiring artist who has nonetheless been refused entry to the all-male Boston Art Club on account of her sex. Amid these difficulties she meets Ezra Pease, a charming businessman from Martha’s Vineyard who has a sheep farm and runs marine salvage in addition to other, possibly shadier concerns that Ida knows nothing about. After courting and marrying Ida, Ezra sells her main asset, a Boston townhouse, and invests the money in his businesses. She moves with him to a sheep farm on the Vineyard where her happiness rapidly fades: Ezra is easily angered, prone to jealousy, and secretive. His business frequently takes him to Maine and New York, leaving Ida in her painting studio, where she finds a measure of relief.
Enter the Portland Gale, the November 1898 storm along the Eastern seaboard that is still famous for its ferocity and length. Ezra is on a boat to Boston when it strikes. Ida goes to Wellfleet and tries to identify his body among the corpses stacked on the beach at Cahoon Hollow but doesn’t find him. (In real life, many bodies lost at sea during the storm were never recovered.) She is emotionless at his funeral.
“Ida had always thought of grief as love cast adrift, something that haunted the living heart once it lost its object,” Gunning writes. “She did feel a hollowness that might be called sadness, but it was a sadness over what she’d let slip away of herself.”
Ida makes plans to work the farm until Ezra’s estate is settled and then return to Boston and her art studies. But there are many surprises in store for her. Few of them are good.
If this all seems like a spoiler, it isn’t; everything above happens at the very beginning of the book. It’s also not much of a spoiler to say that things get still worse. Ezra’s salvage boat with all its equipment sank in the harbor during the gale. The farm that she thought was hers, isn’t; Ezra sold it to his aunt just before their marriage, eliminating any claim Ida had. She is without a husband, a home, or a source of income.
But hope arrives in the form of Henry Barstow, the brother of Ezra’s business partner, who comes to the Vineyard to settle the estate, though there is little to settle. A romance begins to blossom between them. He teaches her to ride a bike. She joins a suffrage group (but finds few women interested in voting). Henry is attentive and kind, everything Ezra wasn’t. But there are still many surprises and setbacks on the horizon, including a visit from Henry’s wife and a private detective prying into Ezra’s past.
Following the pattern of Gunning’s previous books, including the historical novels Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard and Monticello, the author’s thorough research of the period saves Painting the Light from turning into romantic melodrama. There’s an impressive emphasis on historical detail that encompasses everything from the particulars of sheep farming to painting techniques of the era. If you’re a fan of Gunning, or of historical fiction, you’ll find much to enjoy here. You may even be able to spot a happy ending coming amidst all that death and drama.
Sally Cabot Gunning will participate in an author night at the South Chatham Public Library (2960 Main St., South Chatham) on Sunday, Oct. 2 from 4 to 6 p.m. Tickets are $50 and include hors d’oeuvres and iced tea. A cash bar will be available.