The Vanderlyn SilhouetteJuly 9, 2016
I seem to be incapable of writing a review of Flaming Youth, so here’s another by Augusta Huiell Seaman. The Curious Affair at Heron Shoals was my favorite of her books so far, so to go next to The Vanderlyn Silhouette was a little disappointing. This one is a proper historical novel, set around 1820 in lower Manhattan. Varick and Charlton Streets are pretty far downtown now, but back then the area was far enough north that it wasn’t in the city at all. 13-year-old Dosia Watkins, the central character, lives on the grounds of Richmond Hill, an estate occupied at various times by some pretty important historical figures, including Aaron Burr, who lived there with his daughter. By the time this story starts, it’s passed into the hands of John Jacob Astor, who rents it out as a summer home. Dosia’s grandfather is the caretaker and her mother is the housekeeper.
There isn’t a single event precipitating the mystery; there are about four. Seaman’s lack of economy here is pretty frustrating to me. So, in short order: Dosia finds something inside the mansion, her orphaned Quaker cousins arrive, someone starts trying to break in, and John Vanderlyn, an artist who was friends with the Burrs, shows up to paint a picture of the house. Soon they’re all working on a mystery involving events when Theodosia Burr* was mistress of Richmond Hill, because of course they are. Seaman only has one story to tell and it’s about bridging gaps in history by having kids learn stuff about the near past. It didn’t work as well for me this time as it usually does, and I don’t know why for sure, but I can make some guesses.
First, the setting. I think Seaman does better when her primary setting is a modern one. She gets a little too caught up in the details here, a little too consciously educational. Second, the plot. There was just too much stuff happening, to too little purpose. If you’re going to have a super complicated setup, it should build to something. And more than that, it should be necessary for what you want to build to. Instead, Seaman gives us a lot to remember and then veers off in a different direction. I get that she’s a little obsessed with the French Revolution, but if that’s where she wants to go, she has to set it up. She set up everything else.
Third, and probably most important: the characters and their relationships. Dosia, her mother, her cousin David, and John Vanderlyn map roughly to the main characters in The Curious Affair at Heron Shoals, but what really made that book for me was the way those characters seemed to like and trust each other. In The Vanderlyn Silhouette they don’t have time for the small moments that build relationships; everyone’s always too busy trying to explain bits of the plot.
Oh, and I’ve just thought of a fourth thing. I recently saw Love & Friendship, the new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. Because the original novella is told in letters, most of the action happens off-stage, so to speak. The reader gets everything secondhand. That’s fine in the book, but it makes less sense with the immediacy of film; there’s no need for it. The Vanderlyn Silhouette reminded me of that. So much of the action is needlessly distanced from the reader. Dosia finds something in the house? We find out weeks or months later, when she tells David. Two shady characters have a conversation? We find out when David, who overheard them, tells Dosia. Almost every discovery is retold instead of being told. It’s hard to get into a story when the author is always holding you at arm’s length.
- You would think the appropriate Hamilton song for me to have stuck on my head while I was reading would be “Dear Theodosia,” but no. It was (as usual) “Wait For It.”