THE PEACOCK FEAST, by Lisa Gornick. Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 287 pp., $26.
At the heart of Lisa Gornick's “The Peacock Feast,” a novel based on historical events, is a shocking demonstration of one rich man’s pique. The man in question is Louis C. Tiffany, best known for his colorful lamps, who made a fortune as interior designer, stained-glass artist and founder of Tiffany Studios.
In June 1916 he caused the breakwater below his 588-acre estate in Oyster Bay to be dynamited, thereby destroying the beach he considered his own (although the courts ruled otherwise). Tiffany’s act of spite put paid to the Town of Oyster Bay’s plan to reclaim that stretch of coast as a public beach, on which it planned to provide bathhouses and picnic grounds. The reverberations of those stupendous explosions are felt all the way into the 21st century and onto the last page of this wonderfully complex, many-stranded novel.
The book’s title refers to an elaborate feast Tiffany hosted in 1914 for 150 men of wealth and influence at Laurelton Hall, his flamboyant 84-room Oyster Bay mansion. Part of the spectacle consisted of his daughters processing into the dining room, each carrying a large serving platter bearing a roasted peacock. The sight of this bizarre parade sticks in the mind of 101-year-old Prudence, a fictional character, who witnessed it when she was two. (She has cause to remember it for a stunning, plot-twisting reason revealed only much later.) Prudence is the daughter of one of Louis Tiffany’s maidservants and her husband, one of his gardeners.
As a girl, Prudence caught the admiration of Dorothy, Tiffany’s youngest daughter — a resentful bearer of one of those peacocks — who was impressed by her budding artistic talent. Prudence goes on to become an interior decorator and finally the wife of Carlton Theet, who in turn is close friends with James Burlingham, Dorothy’s eventual husband. Neither Dorothy’s nor Prudence’s marriages are happy ones. Dorothy’s is disastrously doomed, as her husband suffers episodes of violent insanity, finally killing himself. Well before his death, however, Dorothy escapes to Vienna with her four children to undergo psychoanalysis, many years later becoming the assistant and companion of Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna, in London. The salient aspects of this are a matter of history, but Gornick weaves it all into the fictional fabric with exceptional cunning.
Spanning nearly 100 years, the novel picks up further characters and plotlines. One belongs to Prudence’s older brother, Randall, who, at 14, left home in New York for San Francisco, never to return. Randall, we discover, made his way in the world as a florist to society ladies, out of whose ranks he found a much-loved wife with whom he had one child, Leo. Leo's story makes up yet another strand, as do the stories of his twin children, Garcia and Grace. And, indeed, it is a visit from Grace to Prudence, the great aunt she has never met, that begins the revelatory unfolding of this intricately woven tale.
A nimble exercise in interlaced stories and psychological insight, “The Peacock Feast” is marvelously rich in character, event and locale. Beginning in Manhattan in 2013, it moves back to Oyster Bay, and later ranges over the decades and the globe to take in San Francisco, Vienna, London, a commune near Mendocino, California, and death row in Huntsville, Texas. Along the way, the several story lines address the balance of chance and fate, opportunity taken and opportunity denied, the cost of buried memory and the centrality of loss. The result is a thoroughly rewarding novel and, though not terribly long, a truly mighty one.