Maze at Windermere (Smith)

The Maze at Windermere 
Gregory Blake Smith, 2018
Penguin Publishing
352 pp.

A richly layered novel of love, ambition, and duplicity, set against the storied seascape of Newport, Rhode Island
A reckless wager between a tennis pro with a fading career and a drunken party guest—the stakes are an antique motorcycle and an heiress’s diamond necklace—launches a narrative odyssey that braids together three centuries of aspiration and adversity.

  • A witty and urbane bachelor of the Gilded Age embarks on a high-risk scheme to marry into a fortune;
  • a young writer soon to make his mark turns himself to his craft with harrowing social consequences;
  • an aristocratic British officer during the American Revolution carries on a courtship that leads to murder;
  • a tragically orphaned Quaker girl, in Newport’s earliest days, imagines a way forward for herself and the slave girl she has inherited.

In The Maze at Windermere Gregory Blake Smith weaves these intersecting worlds into a brilliant tapestry, charting a voyage across the ages into the maze of the human heart. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Education—B.A., Bowdoin College; M.F.A., Iowa Writers’ Workshop
Awards—(see below)
Currently—teaches at Carelton College in Minnesota

Gregory Blake Smith is an American novelist and short story writer. His novel, The Divine Comedy of John Venner (1992), was named a Notable Book of  by The New York Times Book Review and his short story collection The Law of Miracles (2011) won the 2010 Juniper Prize for Fiction and the 2012 Minnesota Book Award.

Smith holds an undergraduate degree from Bowdoin College and an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has been the George Bennett Fellow at Phillips Exeter Academy and a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He is currently the Lloyd P. Johnson Norwest Professor of English and the Liberal Arts at Carleton College. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
Staggeringly brilliant…. An extraordinary demonstration of narrative dexterity. Moving up and down through the strata of history, Smith captures the ever-changing refractions of human desire…. The cumulative effect of this carousel of differing voices is absolutely transporting…. Looking up from this remarkable novel, one has an eerie sense of history as a process of continuous erasure and revision. You’ll start The Maze of Windermere with bewilderment, but you’ll close it in awe.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

(Starred review.) [E]motionally expansive…. [A]s the author makes ever-increasing connections among the stories and shuffles them all into one unbroken narrative, the novel becomes a moving meditation on love, race, class, and self-fulfillment…across the centuries.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) Smith moves nimbly among his tales' various settings and diverse characters…. Historical fiction buffs as well as those with romantic leanings should enjoy this intricate tale. —Jennifer B. Stidham, Houston Community Coll. Northeast
Library Journal

(Starred review.) Intricately designed and suspenseful…. Though references to… The Portrait of a Lady, abound, readers don’t have to be familiar with [James'] novels to relish the well-differentiated voices and worlds or to enjoy the way the novel’s five story lines subtly shift and begin to merge.

Five parallel stories, from Colonial times to the present, set in Newport, Rhode Island.… What seems overly complicated at first becomes quite compelling by the end, when the stories alternate in ever shorter flashes toward resolution.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for The Maze of Windermere … then take off on your own:

1. Were you able to keep characters and time frames straight, especially during the early pages of the novel? Or were you disoriented by the frequent cycling through five different stories?

2. Consider the primary characters in each of the stories—the tennis player, writer, bachelor/dandy, British officer, and Quaker girl. Do you find some more compelling, or more sympathetic, than others?

3. (Follow-up to Question 2) In what way are the characters in each of the stories morally compromised?

4. Notice how diligently Gregory Blake Smith shifts the tone and language in each story, keeping them appropriate to the time frame. Can you point to some of those stylistic changes?

5. How does the author begin to weave these seemingly separate stories together? Or, using another metaphor, can you find echos from older stories in more recent ones (e.g., the tennis player walking by the cemetery)?

6. The young writer (presumably Henry James) thinks about how he must portray his characters:

…in all their complexity, all their blind groping, engaged … in the hubbub of connection … where clarity lies remote and … to have them feel the beats of their hearts though they may not know for what their hearts beat.

• Might that description fit the state of humanity—in real life, not just in fiction—for all of us?

7. What is the significance of the title to the story?

8. Talk about the novel's ending, when the various time frames seem to collapse in on one another. What might the author be suggesting about the workings of history, about the universality of love and morality? Again, consider the young Henry James's words:

We each of us strive to understand who we are, why we are here, to love and be loved, and that for all that striving, we are each of us lost in the mystery of our own heart.

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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