The Starling

May 7, 2018

For someone I think of primarily as an author of fluff, Juliet Wilbor Tompkins writes an awful lot about people who, out of fear (Dr. Ellen) or selfishness (Diantha, Pleasures and Palaces) stifle the growth of others, usually family members. But usually it’s a subplot, and in The Starling it’s the entire book.

The stifler is Stephen Cawthorne, a quiet, middle-aged academic. The stifled are his wife, Lisa, who he’s reduced to a mass of nerves, and his daughter, Sarah, who grows up cut off from the world. They live in Northern California, in a big house surrounded by a high hedge, and they rarely go out or invite anyone in. Mr. Cawthorne is selfish and fussy, and anyone who goes against his spoken or unspoken wishes is made unhappy and uncomfortable. He’s basically as passive-aggressive as a person can be.

As Sarah grows up, she realizes how awful he his behavior is, but there’s not a lot she can do about it without indirectly hurting her mother, so she channels her frustrations into writing, and accidentally produces a popular novel. That sends her out into the world a little, but she’s still tied to the people inside the hedge.

This is a book about a family, but there’s romance, too, and Sarah has two young men vying for her affections. Robert Russell, her childhood crush, is attractive and socially successful and willing to stand up to Mr. Cawthorne. Christopher Saxe, a journalist, is clever and kind and helps usher Sarah’s book through the publishing process. There’s no suspense in this love triangle: Saxe is a little awed by Sarah’s talent. Robert likes her for the shut-in qualities her isolated upbringing have instilled in her. Sarah takes a while to understand this, but as the reader you always know what’s up, and you get to watch Saxe pine. Watching someone pine through the lens of an oblivious protagonist’s point of view is one of the great pleasures of reading romance.

I always have a hard time figuring out what to say about Tompkins; I read her books more often than I write about them, and I’ve read this one before. Her books look like fluff, but I can’t deal with them as such, because they pack such an emotional impact, and I’m never sure whether they hit everyone the way they hit me. She has a way of making me feel like her books were written for me personally. So I can tell you that I like The Starling a lot, that it’s analytical and wish-fulfilling at the same time, and that Tompkins is great at showing you the mechanics of characters and relationships — one of my favorite things — but I still feel like there’s something I’m not getting at.

Unexpected depth is another of my favorite things, and the depth Tompkins delivers shouldn’t be unexpected anymore, but it always is. I don’t think The Starling is quite the fairy-tale that Sarah’s book is, but when Saxe tells Sarah that her book will make people a little warmer and kinder, I felt like Tompkins wasn’t not talking about her own work. And to accomplish that purpose, she needs the fairy-tale and the depth.



  1. I think I will need to seek this out! Fluff and depth is the perfect combination and not always easy to find.

    • Well, if you like it, all of Tompkins’s stuff is a little like this.

  2. I recently read this because of your review, and I loved it! Thank you! I’ve been dipping into some of Juliet Wilbor Tompkins’ other works and find that the quality varies somewhat, this has been my favorite so far!

    • I agree that this is one of the best. My other favorites are Joanna Builds a Nest, Open House, Diantha, and Pleasures and Palaces — have you tried those?

      • I think I have read Joanna Builds a Nest and Open House, and liked them somewhat, though not as well as The Starling. I also read At the Sign of the Oldest House and enjoyed it.

        I skipped out on The Seed of the Righteous pretty early on, and the short story collection Mothers and Fathers seemed pretty bleak and a bit repetitive, so I didn’t finish it either.

        • I’m saving At the Sign of The Oldest House (and a couple of others). I’m not ready to have no more Tompkins books to read.

          I think Seed of the Righteous is worthwhile, if not as good as her best, and I enjoyed Mothers and Fathers but wasn’t super into it.

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