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The Martha's Vineyard Times

The Martha's Vineyard Times is a weekly publication.
August 11 - 17, 2005 Edition
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In Print: Elizabeth Benedict pens a domestic thriller
August 11, 2005


Writer Liz Benedict, a former Island resident, will speak at the Howes House in West Tisbury next Tuesday. Photo by Ralph Stewart.

By Brooks Robards

Elizabeth Benedict, “The Practice of Deceit.” Houghton-Mifflin, 2005. $23.95. 268 pages.

When author and journalist Elizabeth Benedict steps up to the podium to talk about her new novel, “The Practice of Deceit,” Tuesday, August 16, at the West Tisbury Senior Center in front of the library, she should find plenty of friends and fans in the audience. The title of her talk will be “Writing Fiction from Your Own Life: A Conversation.”

Ms. Benedict and her late former husband, Richard Harrington, lived in Vineyard Haven from 1993 to 1996. Ms. Benedict’s connections to the Island date back to her childhood, and her last three novels have been written in part or entirety while holed up here. When Ms. Benedict came back to the Island in 1993 with her husband, he flat-out fell in love with it and bought a house here while she was off-Island.

She left when the couple separated, and, soon after their 1996 divorce, Mr. Harrington died here unexpectedly, and under mysterious circumstances. Ms. Benedict used the experience to write her last novel, “Almost,” which was set on a Vineyard-like island and told a similar story. That bestseller, released two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, tried to capture in fiction the magic of the Vineyard without sentimentalizing it.

“I kept coming back, renting a lot of houses in the wintertime in West Tisbury,” Ms. Benedict says, and she has kept in touch with people on the Island.

Benedict’s latest novel, “The Practice of Deceit,” has no such ready Vineyard connection, but the on-line New Mystery Reader Magazine has already called it “a stunning new breakout thriller”. NPR’s Alan Cheuse says, “The story practically spills out into your lap as you turn the pages.”

Its premise upends the conventional view of women as the victims in divorce cases. Colleen, a black-widow of a Scarsdale divorce lawyer, snags Eric, her “eclectic” psychotherapist husband under questionable circumstances, then moves in for the — psychological if not literal—kill.

As is usually the case in the noir mystery genre, Colleen is a nasty piece of business: cold, ruthless, manipulative, but sexy and gorgeous. Eric gets to play the touchy-feely good guy, who keeps a massage table in his Colleen-designed cottage office, not for hanky panky but New Age bodywork.

Trouble erupts fast in the bland suburban paradise of Scarsdale, where this couple lives with their two daughters, a four-year-old reputedly from Colleen’s first marriage and a two-year old that is both of theirs. The sticking point is the major conflict of interest that emerges when one of Eric’s clients finds himself thrown out by a wife who has hired Colleen as her lawyer.

On the opening page of the novel, Eric, once a confirmed bachelor, lists the seven reasons he fell in love with Colleen. He is writing from a holding cell at the Scarsdale Police Department, because Colleen has had him arrested on charges of child molestation.

From there, this story of lies, betrayals, and surprises unwinds in a whirlwind of fast-paced plot development. Ms. Benedict is a gifted writer, a fluid and intelligent wordsmith who knows how to keep the reader engaged.

She must have had a lot of fun producing this breezy thriller — taking on the persona of a male narrator who speaks in the first person; playing with reader-reception notions about to whom Eric is addressing himself; turning upside down the cultural stereotypes of divorce.

But as well crafted as “The Practice of Deceit” may be, it stays curiously on the surface, too easily turning Colleen into a monster and Eric into a white knight. Everything remains a little too neat, the metaphors slipping too readily into place, the plot ticking along too much like a well-oiled clock.

What does the reader really know about Colleen and Eric? Each of these characters is portrayed as an intelligent, accomplished middle-class American, outfitted with the appropriate accoutrements of suburbia. Eric gives the most pause. The reader never learns enough about his psychotherapeutic background to know how it really informs his character. He commits one egregious no-no after another as a therapist, but the author seems to let him off easy. He calls up his patients, snoops in his wife’s files on their behalf, even calls up one of them from his holding cell. He turns out to be as nuts as his nutty wife.

Yet Eric gets the last words, writing a farewell letter to his estranged wife that puts her in her place. He is never really called to account for his own bad behavior. Such a view of marital breakdown violates the cardinal rule of marital breakdown — that it always takes two to commit.

Many if not most readers will not be concerned about the lack of depth to these two quintessentially 21st-century characters. For them, “The Practice of Deceit” will be a great read. But as fine a writer as Elizabeth Benedict should stretch her considerable talents more and avoid offering fuel to those who still find it easy to turn women like Colleen into witches and burn them at the stake.

Author’s Talk with Liz Benedict, Tuesday, August 16, 7:30 pm, Up-Island Council on Aging, Howes House, State Rd., West Tisbury. Topic: “Writing Fiction From Your Own Life.” Co-sponsored by the West Tisbury Free Public Library and Renaissance House. Free.


Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to The Times.


Fragmentary glimpses of a new beginning
August 11, 2005

By Dan Cabot

Elaine Pace, “Island: A Memoir.” Illustrations by Ann Howes. 1st World Publishing. 2005. 109 pages. $15.95.

“Island: a memoir” is a slim volume containing 27 short pieces describing significant transition in the life of author Elaine Pace as she left a superintendency in New Jersey to move to the Vineyard to be the principal of the West Tisbury School, and as later she left that job. While on one level the memoir is about the author’s delight in discovering the Vineyard, it is more significantly about her discovery of herself.

Ann Howes’s charming pen-and-ink sketches illustrate the physical journey into Martha’s Vineyard.

The internal journey into her own mind and spirit is more compelling than Ms. Pace’s travelogue of the Island. Like many women in her generation, she had found herself successful by almost any standard — career, marriage, family — yet dissatisfied with her life. “I knew well how to nurture others,” she writes. “I had no idea how to nurture myself.”

“Island: A Memoir” is a fragmentary account of how she came to the Vineyard to find what she felt was missing. It was a bold choice and in more than one way a risky one.

A traveling companion on both the internal and external journeys, Dan Pace, Ms. Pace’s husband, is a shadowy but important hero in the story. There must be many who would echo the words Ms. Pace reports from four of her divorced friends: “If I’d had that kind of partner, I’d still be married today!”

Like all journeys, this one did not always go smoothly. She names no names, but local readers will be interested in Ms. Pace’s take on her days at the West Tisbury School and her reasons for leaving the principalship.

Dan Cabot is a contributing editor at The Times.



Smooth As Stone
August 11, 2005

By Dan Cabot

Lew French, “Stone by Design: The Artistry of Lew French.” Photographs by Alison Shaw. Gibbs Smith, Publishers, 2005. Hardcover, $29.95. 160 pages.

In this beautifully finished book, two of the Vineyard’s artists and master craftsmen collaborate to showcase an art as timeless as humanity itself, the use of natural stone as an element of structural and artistic design.

About the same time that the first humans discovered that they could pile up stones to secure the mouth of a cave, they must have also discovered that stones can be collected and arranged in other useful, pleasing, or significant patterns: fire pits, cairns, altars, and shapes that represent living things or even abstract ideas. The famous Venus of Willendorf, a small prehistoric carving of a woman, is estimated to be 30,000 years old.

Lew French is an artist who uses natural stones, often in ways as ancient as the dawn of human experience. They are the principal element in his architectural, interior, and landscape designs. Most of his work is functional: a wall to enclose a garden or retain a bank, a path to walk on, a fireplace, a foundation to hold up a house, even the house-walls themselves. Mr. French’s constructions do the jobs they are designed for and last a very long time — almost certainly longer than the clients who commissioned them.

Mr. French’s art doesn’t stand in museums; it is all around Martha’s Vineyard, placed in natural spaces and in combination with other elements: wood (often driftwood), the plants that grow around and even on the stone, the shape of the land, the way the light comes through a window, the sea or hills beyond. In the hands of a master designer, natural stone is beautiful, as more than a hundred of Alison Shaw’s photographs attest. The publisher’s work is of very high quality. Ms. Shaw says she is “thrilled” with the fidelity of her work in the finished book.

So the first way to enjoy “Stone by Design” is as a book of photographs of Martha’s Vineyard. Just as Mr. French’s designs reveal the eye of an artist and the hands of a master craftsman, Ms. Shaw’s images confirm her place, long-held, as one of the Vineyard’s very best photographers. For a collection of Alison Shaw photos, the price ($29.95) is very reasonable.

Her assignment, to show Mr. French’s work, is documentary or industrial photography, a departure from Ms. Shaw’s usual work, yet she was able to bring variety to the topic and put her own stylistic stamp on the images. A master in the use of all kinds of light, Ms. Shaw catches design elements at different times of day and in different seasons of the year. She frames the stonework not only to investigate the detail, typical of her recent work, but also to place it in its context in ways which show what it is designed to do, and how. The photographs show the stones and the arrangement of stones, but they also show the sea, the sky, the weather, and the way the structures will be used far into the future. We see not only the little stone building with the narrow window, we also see the trees that frame it and the green ridge beyond. We see the fieldstone fireplace with a fire blazing in it and enough of the room to see how it fits into the house. We see the same garden wall in springtime and in the dead of winter.

“Stone by Design” might be purchased for a coffee-table book, good for skimming and then to pick up and return to a favorite image from time to time.

But “Stone by Design” is not just a picture book. Ms. Shaw’s photographs are in the book to illustrate Lew French’s artistic life, which would be interesting without the pictures.

In the Introduction, Mr. French writes about how he was first caught by what he describes as the power and energy of stone. He writes about a project when he was in his early 20s: “When it was finished, I could not stop myself from looking at it. The visual impact the stonework had on me was like nothing I had experienced in my young life. For the first time I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to work with stone.”

In the final chapter, “The Making of an Artist,” Mr. French answers several questions about his work, such as: How did you learn to do stonework? What are the physical requirements of your art? Is your work inspired by Stonehenge? What sustains your motivation?

The chapters between describe several projects, all on Martha’s Vineyard. Some are Mr. French’s own variations on traditional uses of fieldstone in landscape design: stone walls, retaining walls, and walkways. Others are design elements in house construction or small free-standing outbuildings. Still other projects might be described as landscape forms or interior decorating, if “decorating” is the right word for elements built of stone. There is also a chapter on ancient ways of splitting stone.

As well as the record of a man and his art, the book is a textbook on design. In each chapter, Mr. French describes the ideas behind the art: what was in his head before he started, and sometimes how it changed as he worked. However, if the chapters are lessons, they are entertaining ones. The writing is concise and clear; the structure is anecdotal rather than didactic. Mr. French has become extremely successful at what he does, but he doesn’t lecture. Each project is its own adventure. For example, one design turned out to be a disaster until a friend solved the engineering problem Mr. French had overlooked.

In the 1970s, Studs Terkel published “Working,” a book of interviews with people from all walks of life talking about their work. Ninety percent of the interviewees hated their work. One of the few who was happy was a mason who told Terkel he liked to drive around town and look at the foundations he had built over the years and feel satisfaction that his work was lasting. Mr. French told The Times that the durability of his stonework is not as exciting to him as to Studs Terkel’s mason, but as he first experienced in his 20s, he still loves to stand and admire what he has built.

He might have a similar euphoria as he holds “Stone by Design” in his hands.

Meet Lew French on August 16 at 7:30 pm at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Main Street, Vineyard Haven.

Dan Cabot is a contributing editor at The Times.

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