Ellison‘s domestic tale of infidelity and thwarted love is a lyrical poem written from a mother to her son, a moving act of forgiveness that portrays the treacherous emotional path of an adventurous girl who travels from Los Angeles to Maine then onto London, where she becomes involved with an older man in an affair gone awry. At nineteen, Annie Black decides she wants something far more than life with her
self-absorbed alcoholic father and her emotionally immature mother.
In 1989, Annie’s world is lit up with excesses and excitement. Taking two hundred dollars, Annie travels to London, staying in a youth hostel near Earls Court. Here
she gets an office job working for the dashing, handsome Malcolm Church. Charged with redeveloping the London Docklands, Malcolm takes to his new muse both professionally and personally, loving everything about this impressionable, virginal girl. Malcolm may be married and twice Annie’s age, yet he’s able to offer her precisely the sort of romantic entanglement she envisioned when she set off for Europe.
Annie spends most of her waking hours going to parties and hanging out with Malcolm and his wife, Louise, and also with a man named Patrick Ardghal, an old family friend of Malcolm’s who lives in the cottage out back of Malcolm and Louise’s house in Richmond. Annie becomes
increasingly attracted to lean-bodied Patrick, who proceeds to seduce her in his
dark suit and his open collar. Only Patrick can push Annie to the excess in a world charged with lust and sex and a lack of understanding. Soon enough, Annie finds herself pregnant with a new boyfriend, Jonathan,
who takes her on a new journey to Ireland, then onto Nepal and India, where he offers to marry her.
Ellison frames Annie’s past life around her life in present-day San Francisco. Here she’s a successful small business owner, running a shop that sells one-of-a-kind lighting fixtures, junk bought from local artists that she remakes herself. Living with Jonathan, teenage son Robbie, and their two girls, Polly and Clara, life for Annie is good until Robbie is almost killed when his old Volvo sedan flips into a Santa Cruz ravine. As Annie and Jonathan hold silent vigil
at Robbie’s bedside, it is a shock to discover that some twenty years later, Annie “hadn’t known the half of it.”
In tragedy’s aftermath, Annie stands in her San Francisco kitchen, slipping her finger though the flap of a white envelope.
She finds a black-and-white photograph of herself in “that tweed coat,” standing on the chalk downs of the White Cliffs of Dover, waiting to board a ferry to Paris. The photo acts as a sort of catalyst, tumbling Annie down through the decades of her marriage to her days in Paris and her months in London--and to the “small indiscretion” that eventually rocks her world: “ I should never have confessed, I should have wiped my one discretion--one
indiscretion in more than twenty years--from my conscience.”
Ellison writes an acutely observed portrayal of Annie’s regrets, losses, and bewilderment, rendering the novel bleak at times but moving, too. Her difficult themes of betrayal and forgiveness are real and hard-hitting.
As Annie admits that her confession to Jonathan was foolish, Robbie removes himself, encasing himself in his silence of illness. This is a family whose happiness might still be intact if only Annie had been able to see the threats to it more clearly.
Artifact and memory can tell a story even as we try to “muddle our way into our future.” Contained in Annie’s hatbox are yellowing photographs, ancient notes, and official documents with their damning printed type, artifacts perhaps innocent enough to anyone unacquainted with its history, its “treacherous biological imperatives,” and its “call for reparations that are left unpaid.” Suddenly the artifacts become powerful symbols that reignite Annie’s obsessive longing to see Patrick again, especially in the heartbreaking days following Robbie’s paralyzing accident. Forced to navigate the crumbling road of her relationship with Jonathan, Annie runs headlong into even more memories--not just of Patrick, but of Malcolm as well. Forgiveness and betrayal press on through Annie’s story as she struggles to craft a universe in which her heart becomes at least an esoteric, if not an actual, reality.
I have never walked in shoes anywhere similar to Annie’s, but Ellison’s display of such reality and such raw emotion left me feeling like I have. In a landscape where loves manifests itself in such profoundly different ways, weaving in and out of one’s life, Annie’s evolving search for love and forgiveness makes us think about the existence of love in our own lives.