Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Edge of the Earth.
Given its premise—a young married woman's adventures in a remote West Coast lighthouse in 1898—I expected a more dramatic evolution of the character's interior life, more context than Schwarz delivers. Like the era in which Gertrude Swann rejects family expectations in Milwaukee for marriage to another than her parents' choice and embarks upon a future in Point Lucia, California, Schwarz harnesses her protagonist's actions to convention, leaching the novel of the potential dimension of Trudy's adventure: other than making the decision to marry Oskar, at no time does Trudy break from her proscribed limitations. Plot dominates opportunity, predictability trumps creativity. Though filled with accurate historical detail, the disappointment of family and intended fiancé, Ernst, in choosing his cousin Oskar, college-educated Trudy Schroeder is blindsided by her attraction to the ambitious Oskar and his plans to begin a new life in California.
Ill-prepared for the rigors of domesticity on the isolated outcropping of a lighthouse maintained by another family, Trudy's upbringing offers little preparation for her new situation. Given the life-altering exchange of environment, this rich setting of roiling sea, soup-thick fog, treacherous cliffs and the quasi-friendly Crawley family, with its unruly brood of children and blunt mannerisms, is the perfect canvas for conflict. There is emotional engagement with the Crawleys encompassing both joy and tragedy, but Schwarz fails to unleash her imagination in the character who experiences this radically different life from that of a society matron, the Trudy who takes a leap of faith, who suffers, overcomes, survives and remains to the end of her days in a place she chose in a moment's impulse.
Though Trudy may have selected her partner unwisely, the die is cast. The author hews to the conventional emotional palette of the era in lieu of choices inspired by landscape and opportunity, freedom from judgment, psychologically isolating her protagonist from the upheavals she faces at the lighthouse far from home and family. Aware that there is much about Oskar she hasn't considered—or understood—in her hasty marriage, Trudy's first inkling of trouble ahead is the fallout from his obsession with scientific experiments with electricity. His papers strew from the lighthouse proper to their private quarters, coworkers taking umbrage with Oskar's performance of his duties as assistant lighthouse keeper. These crusty and often brusque people understand the harsh terrain they inhabit, acutely conscious of the risks initiated by careless newcomers.
As Trudy gradually adjusts to her circumstances, processing a recent loss and the terms of the partnership she has entered, she warms toward Euphemia Crawley, even attempts to teach the children, whom she learns to enjoy. The children return from their excursions telling tales of a mermaid that lives in a cave. Unfortunately, the introduction of another plot twist allows the characters, especially Trudy, to engage in a plot device that is not developed enough to serve as more than a distraction, rather than explore the challenge of her life with Oskar, the choices as a woman far removed from the rigors of society potentially on the verge of her self-exploration. (The novel is set in a time when women's rights are the topic of discussion in a new century, a subject later forgotten.)
The mystery of the "mermaid' proves yet another distraction for Oskar, a new problem to dominate and exploit with serious consequences for the unfortunate mermaid and for Trudy. Clinging tightly to her protagonist's sense of propriety, Schwarz negates the pull of natural forces from the untamed coast. Trudy's actions are dictated by her fears, yet counterintuitive to her decision to remain in this place for the rest of her days, ignoring the symbiosis that apparently occurs between woman and nature and fosters the courage to change the future. I wish the author had let her character explore the possibilities in this raw setting, to plunge of the putative cliff, at least in spirit, even to fly.