REVIEW: The Threefold Tie by Aster Glenn Gray
Dear Aster Glenn Gray,
I think I have fallen in love with your voice. Your writing is, as our sometime commenter Cleo has said, deceptively simple. I start out each of your works thinking it will be uncomplicated, but as I keep reading I realize that there are layers there, subtle cues and meanings, that make each novella more than one would generally expect that such a short work, written with such directness, is likely to be.
Your protagonists are often reflective, tentative and careful, your writing delicate, sensitive, and your stories touch me differently than most others. I feel as if you watch over your characters with tenderness. They have their flaws and foibles (though they are good people) but your perception of them is loving, and an invitation to the reader to be equally generous.
The Threefold Tie, your newest, is such a work. Unlike Briarley and The Wolf and the Girl, this one is not a fairy-tale retelling, but a historical novella, set in the post-Civil War era (around about 1872). It involves two men and one woman. It is a romance, and more. It is also the story of a friendship, as all your novellas are.
Johnathan aka Jack is an artist and illustrator living in New York City. He is friendly with a married couple, Sophie and Everett Kesson (Everett is a newspaper editor and printer), and the novella opens when he is visiting them in their home in Parkersburg.
Jack’s friendship with Everett goes back at least several years. They served in the Union army together during the Civil War. One night, they became separated from their regiment and had to huddle in a barn. Everett kissed Jack, and things moved on from there. By the time they mustered out of the army, Jack was thoroughly in love.
When Everett got engaged, Jack was hurt and angry. He didn’t expect to like Everett’s wife and initially he didn’t. But then, a few years into Everett and Sophie’s marriage, Jack fell in love with Sophie. Coveting Everett’s wife seems far worse to Jack than sleeping with a man, so he does his best to conceal his feelings. But everything changes when Everett, in a moment that comes after receiving joyous news, kisses Jack.
Jack is horrified—the illicit kiss is the worst possible thing that could have happened, and now Sophie, whom Jack adores, will be hurt. He’s not far off, either. Sophie appears in Everett’s printing office just as Jack ends the kiss by pushing Everett away, and she is devastated and then furious.
But it is not Jack with whom Sophie is angry. Her fury is directed at Everett, who, in a moment of carelessness, destroyed the delicate balance between the three of them. Jack runs back to the house, and when Sophie follows him there, he apologizes more than once, tells her he loves her and kisses her hands, and then flees back to New York. Sophie knows that it’s more than likely that she’ll never see Jack again.
I don’t want to spoil the surprises in a book that’s so short (148 pages), so I’ll only add that this is a story in which the characters gently question themselves and the others, reveal themselves to one another in an attempt to find out whether their relationship is a triangle, a friendship that’s been shattered, or whether it can be salvaged and reconfigured into something unexpected and a bit intimidating for three people in 1870s America: a threesome.
The Threefold Tie is written in third person and structured somewhat unusually. There are four chapters, each divided into numbered sections, and in the first chapter we get Jack’s POV, the second, Sophie’s, and the third, Everett’s. With each of these, we learn more about each of the players; their inner thoughts are only gradually unveiled. The fourth brings us back full circle, to Jack. Furthermore, the story ranges back and forth in time via the memories of the characters, but the flashbacks are not in a dual timeline. Rather, they are like puzzle pieces fitting into place.
The order in which the POVs appear in is exactly right. Jack is a shy and gentle soul, a good listener who rarely speaks. There’s a humility to him; he doesn’t expect much or demand anything from others, even when he has a right to. He is observant, though, and every moment in Sophie’s company is almost like a gift to him. His love for her torments him, because Everett is the last man he would ever wish to betray.
Sophie’s characterization is also lovely. She is practical and warm, with a willingness to admit to her flaws. She’s also open-minded for her time and place, but that is substantiated by her upbringing. She has rule-breaking aunts who had a hand in her upbringing, including a Mormon one in Utah who is in a polygamous marriage.
Everett is a charismatic extrovert with all the confidence Jack doesn’t have. He too has his quirks—he sees nothing wrong with his bisexuality, but, in a nod to historical attitudes, he believes the doctors who say that self-pleasuring is harmful to one’s health. On the whole, though, he’s less complicated than the other two.
The novella evokes its time and place well, with details like a cast-iron spider skillet, mentions of the polyamorous Oneida Community and flashbacks to the Civil War. I caught just one anachronism in the language, “gang up on,” which is from 1919.
I have one real criticism, though, and it involves a spoiler.
The novella is slow burn and has a wistful tone. If there’s a message in the story it is one of be compassionate and give yourself a chance.
In contrast with the murkiness surrounding the relationships, the language is direct and simple. It is also economical. There are occasional metaphors but they aren’t flashy. Instead they are like hints and glimmers.
I am including a long excerpt in the hope that it will have on readers the same effect it had on me:
It was very quiet in the kitchen – but a peaceful workaday quiet, the sound of the charcoal on the sketchpad, the slice of the knife through the strawberries, a light breeze in the trees and a bird singing. Jonathan sketched swiftly, laying down the graceful arc of her neck, the roundness of her cheek, her capable hands on the knife.
Drawing had always soothed him. Much better to think of her as a picture, than to picture kissing her. More respectful to her, and more loyal to Everett.
“That’s all the strawberries done. Will it frighten away your muse if I cut the biscuit?” Sophie asked, and Jonathan looked up from his sketch. The sun had shifted as he worked, and in its slanting light, even the plain surface of the scrubbed pale table looked beautiful.
“It’s like a Vermeer,” Jonathan said.
“A Vermeer?” Sophie said. “I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about art.”
Jonathan hadn’t known about Vermeer either, till he’d gone to study art in New York. “A painter – an old Dutch painter – we don’t have any of his paintings in the US, only copies. But he paints pictures like this, kitchens with the sunlight coming in so everything seems to glow. They’re beautiful. And sad.”
“Sad!” She looked around her kitchen: the cheerful red-checked curtains, the glass vase of fresh cut irises, the biscuit for the shortcake waiting golden-brown on the clean scrubbed table.
“Because it’s just a moment,” he tried to explain. “Because it will pass.”
I felt a bit like that when reading this novella; I tried to read it slowly and savor it since it was short. I felt it nourished my spirit. Your books are comforting reads, perfect for reading during the pandemic we’re living through. B+/A-.
PS I thought of another issue in the book: It centers on Jack a bit too much. I wanted Everett and Sophie to be a bit more conflicted to balance the focal points. As it was, it felt a bit lopsided.