My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Seventeen year old Natalie Kessler is beautiful, sullen, and determined to have things her own way. Her brainy younger sister, Alice, plans to become an ornithologist. While on vacation with their parents, they each develop crushes on the moody artist in the neighboring cabin, Thomas Bayber, who does some sketches of the family. Ten years later, Alice is forced to give up her graduate studies by the debilitating effects of rheumatoid arthritis. Wanting to be alone to come to terms with the death of her dream, Alice retreats to the same lakeside cabin, not knowing that Thomas, now well on his way to fame, will also be there. An intense but brief liaison ensues, after which they go their separate ways.
The second half of the novel takes place decades later. The Kessler sisters are now living secluded lives in Tennessee, and Alice is completely dependent upon Natalie and their housekeeper. Thomas has succumbed to alcoholism, squandered his fortune, and become a recluse. He has long since been supported by Dennis Finch, the art historian who wrote the catalog on Bayber’s work. Now he summons Finch and disgraced authenticator Stephen Jameson to locate a heretofore unseen triptych that he painted from the Kessler sketches.
The Gravity of Birds has a complicated plot, told in a series of alternating flashbacks and present-day scenarios. There are two mysteries to unravel: why did the sisters leave New England so precipitously, and why did Thomas send Finch and Jameson on this close to impossible quest? There are poetic and fairy tale elements in the narrative that create an almost gothic, other worldly atmosphere. It is easy to empathize with each character, so much so that the revelation of the novel’s central mystery comes as a blow. If the novel has faults, they lie in the resolution, which relies too heavily on serendipity to be entirely credible. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive debut by an accomplished writer. I finished it last week, and it’s been staying with me; I look forward to Ms. Guzeman’s future work.