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?

35 thoughts on “Jetta Carleton: Clair de Lune (2012)

  1. I have this book at home on my library pile right now! As a matter of fact I checked it out earlier and when I did a weed through to return the books I knew I couldn’t manage to read it made the cut and stayed checked out. Now I want to go home and immediately start reading! And maybe I will do just that. Other than the Balchin I think I am going to not do any other readalongs this month–I just can’t quite motivate myself to read anything other than what I want to at whim–which I sort of feel bad about, but it’s not good to force books you don’t feel like reading either. I have her first book as well–I’m looking forward to reading that, too. Which did you like more?

    • That’s what happened with this book, I read the review on Natalie’s blog and had to have it and start it right away. Ususally these are the bets reads, those that just have to read right then and there. 🙂 I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.
      I think Clair de Lune has a few flaws in the structure because she never got a chance to rework on it but they are minor. Moonflower Vine is better constructed but all in all this spoke more to me. I just liked everything about it.

      • Maybe I’ll start it this weekend–I pulled it out of my library book bag and have it sitting next to my bed. I am trying to read more American authors, right? She would fit perfectly. So much for not starting new books, but I did say I wanted to read at whim. I have heard many good things about her first book, too.

        • She fits very well indeed. That was one of those dangerous lists you made. I’m lucky I had many of the books already.
          I have a feeling you will like this. Allen is naive but she is not a conventional woman, I really liked her.

  2. Wow…you have been on a roll lately with wonderful books. This sounds amazing. And this takes place during one of my favorite time periods to study and to read about. Thanks for the review Caroline!

    • I was very lucky with some of my choices. Very.:) I could imagine you would like this. It’s uplifting and nostalgic at the same time.
      Now I have moved on to French and Russian writers and it’s getting bleak.

        • Too many suggestions actually, you would have to narorw it a tiny little bit down.
          If you have a look at my About page, you will find my favourite books and I’d say 50% are not English. Some of my favorites are Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi Contini and Solzhenitsin’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. When it comes to French and German authors I could suggest tons…

  3. I’d never heard of Jetta Carleton, so thanks for sharing this, Caroline! Sounds like a fascinating read with some good strong themes. The theme of change sounds particularly interesting – it must have been so incomprehensible to be living in small-town Missouri and feel a world away from events in Berlin or London or Tokyo, and yet be drawn into them and have your life transformed by them.

    • Yes it must have been strange but what I liked best about the character was how resourceful she was. Someone else in her position would have just be depressed about being far way from all the interesting things but she managed to recreate a small part of this in a tiny town in Missouri. That’s the type of optimism I like. Not just “positive thinking” and blocking out the reality but actively changing and improving your own situation. That’s why it’s such an uplifting book. We know at the end that she will become anything she wants to be.

    • the only things that is sad is that they will very certainly not find another of her novels. It was known she had written a second one but they had no clue where it was. I hope you can find them, I could imagine you would like them.

  4. Liked your review very much, Caroline! This looks like a wonderful book! I am adding it to my wishlist! College life, literature classes, evening meetings with friends discussing literature, music and writing – this book has all the themes that I love 🙂 Thanks for this wonderful review! You read such beautiful books 🙂

    • I’m glad you liked the review, Vishy. I think you would like this book. It has a wonderful mix of things I love as well. And the atmosphere is lovely.
      It’s very rare that I feel like starting a book all over again just after having finished it.

  5. This sounds great but dear, that cover along with the title is more than corny.
    I’ve never heard of it but it’s the kind of book I should like. Thanks for reviewing it.

    PS: I love Clair de Lune, I wish I could play it.

    • It is, isn’t it? An awful cover. I think this keeps a lot of potential readers away and doesn’t do it any justice. It’s not a corny book. While I think the choice of Debussy’s piece is by now corny as well, the music as such is not. I really like it. Funny that both novels I loved so much had Debussy titles.
      I hope you can still take your piano lessons.

  6. I’m so sorry I missed your review of this! But I am so ecstatic to read that you loved this as well. I also struggled with trying to slow down while reading it, but couldn’t. I had to just plow through it because it was such an engaging and beautifully written story that I couldn’t put it down. I do need to read Moonflower Vine, I’ve heard so many wonderful things about that one as well!

    • Don’t worry. 🙂
      I truly liked it a lot and am grateful to yu foro reviewing it as I was not sure whether I would like it.
      Looking back I think I liked it more than Moonflower Vine but I would have to re-read it to be sure. It’s a very good book as well. I’m interested to see what you will think of it.

  7. I really have a hard time believing the wonderful writer, Jetta Carleton who wrote The Moonvlower Vine actually wrote Clair de Lune. The style is nothing like the first book at all. I’ve loved The Moonflower Vine for many years and have read it many times … I was totally let down with Clair de Lune. I think it is a Fake!!

    • I liked it but still the thought crossed my mind. On the other hand, isn’t it possible that it is so different because she ddn’t get the chance to work on it? It has a few odd breaks and feels like a draft at times. I liked it a lot but from the point of view of the writing, Moonflower Vine is superior, no doubt about that.

  8. Pingback: Best Books 2012 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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