THE MAZE AT WINDERMERE, by Gregory Blake Smith. Viking, 339 pp., $27.
When one thinks of Newport, Rhode Island, what comes to mind? Lifestyles of the rich and famous. Heirs and heiresses and high society, private clubs and mansions and yachts. Few would say that Newport symbolizes America or American history. And yet “The Maze at Windermere,” Gregory Blake Smith’s ambitious fourth novel, examines race, class, gender, sexual identity, war and love in America through the lens of Newport’s history.
The novel’s titular maze not only makes a literal appearance but references the novel’s dizzying structure. In the Colonial Newport of 1692, a Quaker girl named Prudy Selwyn tries to navigate the less-than-savory society she is exposed to after the tragic death of her mother. In the Revolutionary War-era Newport of 1778, a young soldier boldly crosses cultural boundaries in pursuit of love. In 1863, during Newport’s Gilded Age, the young aspiring writer Henry James pursues his passion while struggling with pernicious social forces. Just before the turn of the 19th century, a closeted dandy named Franklin Drexel woos a Newport heiress for her fortune. And in 2011, a retired tennis pro named Sandy Alison has affairs with women from various echelons of Newport society and faces unexpected consequences. These five stories are told in small installments that rotate cyclically (2011, 1896, 1863, 1778, 1692, repeat) until the final stretch of the book, when the cyclical structure collapses as we approach the center of the metaphorical maze.
All five of these stories unfold centuries apart but geographically on top of one another, which makes for a fun game of drawing connections between the five timelines. The literal Maze at Windermere appears in both Franklin’s and Sandy’s narratives. Characters often visit places where characters from prior narratives lived or frequented hundreds of years before. However, unlike David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” or Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed” — one long story that takes place over centuries — Smith’s novel contains five stories that unfold in the same place at different times in history.
The themes that resonate across the five narratives imbue the novel with grander meaning as a whole. Sandy and Franklin are classic cases of outsiders aspiring to a high society that will never accept them. Sandy and Prudy both experience eye-opening revelations with regard to race — Sandy in his romance with a black artist named Aisha and Prudy in her relationship with a slave girl named Ashes, inherited from her deceased mother. The revolutionary soldier falls in love with a Jewish woman, but their romance is undermined by her father, who will never accept the soldier because he is a gentile. Henry James becomes romantically entangled with a Jewish woman named Alice Taylor, an affair which certain Christian members of society view as taboo. Themes of racial tension, anti-Semitism, class dynamics, gender dynamics and sexual orientation saturate the novel, and Smith handles them with impressive clarity and nuance.
Unfortunately, the novel’s conclusion is somewhat unsatisfactory, and a couple of the individual narratives would benefit from a little more attention during the book’s convoluted final act. Nonetheless, with “The Maze at Windermere,” Smith says far more than “the more things change, the more they stay the same”; he demonstrates that various forms of American prejudice and exclusion are so ingrained in our nation’s psyche that we will never find our way past them.