This book hurt my heart but in this poignant rush that was utterly captivating.
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Charleston by Margaret Bradham Thornton tells the story of Eliza Poinsett who journeys home to a city so filled with tentacles of memory and connection she can’t shake them off. Her journey sparks a second chance with her lost love, Henry Heyward. The story’s resonance with me stemmed from my own personal taste of lost love and the lure of returning home. This was the perfect first book to kick off my summer reading list.
“A simple gesture, a man’s hand on a woman’s shoulder. It could as easily not have happened. Eliza often thought about how a series of unconnected events strung out over a number of years had brought about this chance encounter between Henry and herself.” From the first page this book pulled me in with a wonderfully modest opening paragraph that sets up the book’s underlying theme about the impasse between fate and chance. “Eliza used to think that Fate had abandoned her, but now she wondered if it had its arms wrapped so tightly around her that it would never let her go.”
Thornton writes in a lyrical prose that is both refreshing and comfortable. She leaves a lot of questions un-answered, but this didn’t deter my ability to connect to the story or the characters. Rather this intentional choice by the author contributed to the overall mystique and, yet, realism of the book because we never know the whole story. We never have all the pieces in one nice, neat package. I felt that this also contributed to the book’s biographical feel even though the story is told from a limited third person point of view.
Henry and Eliza were extremely lovable characters. I really empathized with Eliza’s ambiguity about Henry, the past, and the future. I felt keenly her desire to move forward, and yet her reluctance to forget what had happened between them. She tries to hang on to it as a shield to protect her heart. Henry is charm itself. He is determined, bold, and upfront about making Eliza love him again, but somehow he never comes across as too pushy or arrogant.
As other reviewers have suggested, Charleston takes on the importance of a third main character in this work. Thornton’s descriptions woven through Eliza’s encounters and memories bring the city alive portraying its languid charm. Charleston is one of my favorite cities, and in fact S. and I honeymooned there. While reading this book, I felt myself walking the oyster shell paths and feeling the salty breeze off the Battery. Furthermore, Thornton gives readers a glimpse into the parlors of Charleston society, drawing on such historically recognizable names as Heyward, Middleton, Alston, and Tradd.
Again, part of Charleston’s appeal for me was the theme of returning home. Thornton captured all of the nuances of such a return through Eliza’s grappling with the question: does home ever really let us go? I understood Eliza’s relief at returning to a place that was soothing in its familiarity as well as her fear that she had changed just enough to make that familiarity discordant. In a conversation between Henry and Eliza, he asks:
“Do you think you can – I mean, can one – ever return to a place one’s left?”
“What do you mean? I’m here.”
“I mean, can you ever truly find the place you left?”
“Because the place is the same, but you are not?”
For me, this dialogue really captured the quandary of returning home.
Closely linked to this exploration of returning home is the idea of loss and what parts of ourselves do we give up along our life’s journey. So perhaps the most poignant message of this book is about finding oneself. For as Henry and Charleston come back to Eliza, she feels as if she has regained some long lost part of herself and that is the real magic of this book.
Overview: FIVE STARS
Plot – Good with an unexpected twist if a bit slow 3/4s in
Characters — Lovable and worthy
Romance – Emotional and heartbreaking
Writing — Lyrical
Humor – Subtle, quirky, and sweet
Themes – Stirring and weighty
Setting — Memorable perfect for summer reading