The Excellent Lombards
Passing through the public library, as I do about once a week, I found a book by Jane Hamilton, The Excellent Lombards, on the new book shelf, so I checked it out and started reading it at night before I went to sleep, which is what it is good for, being a calm book in which nothing much happens.
I kept thinking something was going to happen—at the very least, I thought, the little girl narrator would grow up. She begins the novel by telling us about her family apple orchard:
“the majesty of the woods around the manor house and the size of the house itself, and the elegance of the apple barn, which originally had been meant for horses, and along the rise the dignity of the long straight rows of apple trees: All those beauties were a reminder of the grace and the good breeding of the Lombard clan itself.”
The little girl, “Mary Frances,” is called by several different nicknames. She is perpetually at war with everyone else in her family about who is going to be in charge of the apple orchard when her parents and her aunt and uncle, who run the place, along with a mysterious great-aunt, get too old to continue. As children, she and her brother play it as a game:
“we considered it a siege more than a war, the standoff with our relatives, with our cousins who in ordinary life were our friends.”
As she gets older, however, she continues to play the same childish games, fearing every new relative and visitor to the farm has come to take it over, fighting against those she considers to be interlopers and twisting everything into her own strange fabric of “us against them.” When her brother starts to grow up and refuses to be part of the “us” any longer, she throws a tantrum. She makes up a story about her great-aunt and sticks to it into her teens, without ever even speaking to the great-aunt, who periodically makes friendly overtures but refuses to get drawn in to the little girl’s daily histrionics.
Mary Frances’ point of view kept me reading, though, because every once in a while she would reveal something interesting about what motivated her. One night she wonders
“If a place might make you more than you were. Was that possible? The puzzle was like a dread story problem. And then, without that place, say you lost it, or couldn’t get back to it, or couldn’t stay there for long, it could turn out that you really weren’t much of anyone.”
When she is fourteen and her brother fifteen, they play a game of Euchre with their parents one summer night, “the ideal game for us, four persons, a game that requires some concentration and strategy but allows for sociability.” The situation reminds me of playing card games with my children as teenagers, and the ensuing conversation bears that out:
“When she put her card down two tricks later William said, ‘You know that’s trump, right?’
‘Oh!’ she giggled. ‘I forgot.’
I snorted and did the glance at William, See? To forget that the left bower is still trump after playing for decades really is mental retardation.
‘I always forget that,’ my father said.
‘You should not admit it,’ I instructed.
‘What is wrong with you people?’ William couldn’t help asking.
My mother glared at her cards. ‘We’re just old,’ my father explained. ‘That’s all.’
‘Well, snap out of it.’ Softening, William added, ‘Do you want me to review the rules again?’
‘I think we’ve got it.’
The children are so competitive, so serious about everything, and the parents, who have been playing card games all their lives, have lost some of that competitive spirit and are enjoying everyone being together, which makes them seem dull and even lack-witted to their children.
By the time her brother is applying to colleges, Mary Frances despises every other member of her family, calling her own mother Mrs. Lombard and unwilling to even consider going to college, like her brother and the cousins she used to compete with. She has no use for liberal arts colleges, saying
“Whereas Dolly’s aspiration for Amanda and Adam was a brag-worthy university that would provide them with a marketable skill, Mrs. Lombard wanted William and Francie to become fully rounded, truly educated, cultivated people. She seemed to think that without Oberlin or Bates or Carleton or Williams we’d not know who Hesiod was, we’d forget to vote, we’d vote Hitler into power, we’d confuse good and well, we’d not appreciate a symphony orchestra, we’d track mud into museums, and most frightening, we’d admire terribly written thrillers and bosom heavers.”
And with that little speech and the action that follows (hiding the car keys so her brother can’t go visit his chosen college), she loses my sympathy entirely.
The book ends with her still at this age, despising everything, knowing better than everyone. There is a conversation with her brother on the penultimate page that shows there is hope she will one day grow up, but 273 pages of her childishness was about 73 pages too many for me.
The pleasure of this book–to the extent there is any–is in reliving some of those moments with know-it-all children in the years before college and being glad that those days are past.