Monday, April 14, 2008

A Lost Lady - Willa Cather - OT challenge - USA

The first book of my Orbis Terrarum reading challenge is A Lost Lady by American writer Willa Cather, first published in 1923.

I like to read a book before I look at an introduction or reviews, so that my response is not influenced by what other people might say about it. It is interesting to then look back at my scribbled notes alongside the views of the critics; in this case I discovered that my understanding of the author's intention was mistaken and I had to read the book a second time with a very different perspective. My edition of A Lost Lady is from the Virago Modern Classics and has an introduction by A.S. Byatt.

I was, at first, rather disappointed by the detachment of the narrator from the characters in the story; I like to sympathise with at least one character, but I couldn't find a hero. It was not until page 100 of this 167 page novel, that I thought I understood the author's intention but there were a few surprises to follow. My reading of A.S Byatt's introduction showed that I had, in fact, made a common mistake in thinking that the book was a commentary on the loss of the grand standards of the pioneers to the "generation of shrewd young men, trained to petty economies by hard times.' In fact, Willa Cather said that she did not want her readers to care about anything in the story other than her portrait of one character - the lost lady.

The book is about Mrs Forrester, the young, vivacious and glamorous wife of the much older Captain Forrester, a respected pioneer of the western railroad. They are wealthy, popular and generous and we see their lives through the eyes of several local boys who go onto the Forresters' property to catch rabbits and fish. Various dimensions of the central characters are revealed through the very different relationships that these boys develop with Mrs Forrester, particularly after the fortunes of the Forresters and the local town are hit by the economic recession.

I didn't enjoy this as much as Willa Cather's My Antonia, but I found her use of different narrative view points interesting and I have no doubt that A Lost Lady will remain on my bookshelf to be read again. (My rating: 8/10)


  1. Way to go! I have never heard of this book, or the author (exactly why I am excited I am able to host this challenge, to learn MORE!) I agree with what you say about reviews and introductions, I am the same way generally, especially if I own the book and it has been patiently sitting on my shelf waiting to be read! I have a hard time reading reviews because often times they share things (spoilers) that I wish I hadn't known...I like to go in completely blank...or as blank of a slate as possible.

    Good work on your Orbis Terrarum book!!!

  2. Thank you, Bethany. I hope I've been able to give my impression of the book without spoiling the story for any potential reader.

    Now I have to decide where I'm going next!

  3. m. why do you defer to another's opinion? I rarely read reviews either of books or movies, but rely on feedback from people whose opinions and recommendations I respect or from other of the author's works.

  4. I don't think I was deferring to anyone other than the author herself, e. When I finished reading the novel, I went on to read the introduction and it was there that I saw what Willa Cather had said about her intention in writing the book.

    I had made up my mind that I didn't find any of the characters engaging and (though I didn't say it because it is for everyone to make up their own mind) that I thought the ending very weak before I read A S Byatt's opinion. And I didn't allow her view to influence mine.

  5. oh, no it was a great review, don't worry!

    Yes...the voyage continues...funness!

  6. I usually just lurk here (lovely blog), but I have to say this: if you have to read the author's explanation to fully understand the book, isn't there a real flaw in the book?

  7. Welcome, Bruessel, it is nice to hear from the usually silent visitors to RD.
    Yes, I agree that any work of art that has to be explained is flawed. I am happy to go deeper into a piece through the explanation of its creator; to see it in a new light because of another person's perception; or to discover its relevance or importance within a historical context. I look for those aspects after I've formed my initial iview, in that way the work makes its own impression.

    In this case, I found the author's intention actually diminished the book in my eyes. It is a well-written narrative but, as I said, not as good as the other books of Willa Cather that I've read.

  8. bruessel - Perhaps the flaw is in the reviewer who has interpreted the author's intent and not the author herself.

    Great writing like great art allows us all to appreciate it through a prism of our own experiences, so I think it best to skip the reviewer and go directly to the artist. Even historical details of the era or the author's life, while interesting, aren't as important as the words an author has actually chosen to write on the pages we are reading. Why not just accept that that's her intent?`

    No end of mumbo jumbo nonsense has been written about interpreting art and literature leading to the completely IMO off-the-wall theory of deconstruction ala Jacques Derrida et al.


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