Jetta Carleton: Clair de Lune (2012)

Clair de Lune is Jetta Carleton’s long-lost second novel which has just been rediscovered and published for the first time this year. I read Moonflower Vine, her highly acclaimed first book, after I had seen it mentioned on Jane Smiley’s list of 100 best novels. Moonflower Vine was one of my favourite reads that year and Clair de Lune will most certainly be on my Best of 2012. I’m really glad I discovered a review on Natalie’s blog Coffee and a Book Chick.

Written in the 60s but set in the 40s in a small town in Missouri, Clair de Lune tells the story of a young woman who is trying to find her way, of a unique friendship between three people and of America just before entering the war.

Allen Liles dreams of being a writer and going to New York. Her love of literature is immense but she also craves the life of a writer, sitting in cafés, discussing.  For the time being she has to be content with a job as a teacher in a college in Missouri. Her love of books and her unconventional mind let her go ways that haven’t been explored before and thanks to the understanding college head she is allowed to offer an extracurricular discussion group. Her plan is to introduce the students to modern writers who are not on the syllabus yet. The students who sign up are as enthusiastic as she is and it doesn’t take long until they start to meet after the classes as well. With her barely 24 years, Allen isn’t much older than her students and none of them gives a thought to the fact that she isn’t allowed to meet them outside of the classroom. Her innocence and the happiness to find people who think like her prevents that it even crosses her mind that there could be a problem. After a few weeks only George and Toby are left and the three young people go out together on a regular basis or spend the evenings at Allen’s flat where they eat something, listen to music and discuss books and Allen’s’ own writing. They introduce each other to new books and pieces of music, one of their favourites being Debussy’s Clair de Lune. When they are fed up with sitting at home, they go to the cinema together or just walk the streets and enjoy the spring evenings.

As the weeks go by, a shift takes place and slowly Allen is drawn to Toby. They meet without George and  their friendship turns into a love affair. In her naiveté Allen doesn’t realize that she is in danger and when rumors start to spread, they have to stop seeing each other. When she finally realizes that she has made a mistake, she lives intense weeks of anxiety and fear.

Before the rumours started to spread the war had already cast a shadow over their friendship. Allen’s reaction is equally naive when it comes to her view of the war in Europe. She is certain that America will never be drawn into it, that the war is something that is dark and destructive but that they are secure and sheltered. George shares her views more or less but Toby loses patience with her and thinks she is very wrong.

The book centers on a few main themes, literature and friendship are but two of them. Convention versus freedom are other themes which are explored. In choosing an independent life, Allen is ahead of her time and although she is in many ways a naive young woman, she possesses a very original mind and is free of prejudice. Another main topic is change. Clair de Lune pictures a vanishing world. The US before entering the war  are very different from the one after. The times are changing and with them the needs of the society which is mirrored in the way the college changes. While this is a college which offers a broad education with emphasis on the arts, the younger faculty members want to get rid of the head and turn the faculty into one in which courses in economy and other specializations which lead to a career are offered.

I absolutely loved this book. I tried to slow down while reading but it was pointless, I just rushed through the pages and when I turned the last one I was quite sad. It contains such a lot of intense scenes and the most uplifting ending since I’ve read Nada last year. Since the largest part of the book is set in spring, there are a lot of wonderful outdoor scenes in which the three friends walk in the streets, stand in the rain or just stroll through the fog. There is a breathlessness and joy of life in these pages that is exhilarating. It renders the enthusiasm of young people for whom everything is a discovery, be it literature, art, music, love or friendship. At the same time there is the anxiety about war and the knowledge that the freedom and carefreeness they experience is going to end.

Have you read Jetta Carelton?