Print: Elizabeth Benedict pens a domestic
August 11, 2005
Writer Liz Benedict, a former Island resident, will speak
at the Howes House in West Tisbury next Tuesday. Photo by
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. Benedicts 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
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
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.
Benedicts 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. NPRs 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 literalkill.
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 Colleens 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 Erics 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
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 wifes files on their behalf, even calls up one
of them from his holding cell. He turns out to be as nuts as his
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
Authors 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
glimpses of a new beginning
August 11, 2005
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 authors delight in discovering the Vineyard, it is more
significantly about her discovery of herself.
Ann Howess charming pen-and-ink sketches illustrate the physical
journey into Marthas Vineyard.
The internal journey into her own mind and spirit is more compelling
than Ms. Paces 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. Paces 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 Id had
that kind of partner, Id 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. Paces
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
Stone by Design: The Artistry of Lew French. Photographs
by Alison Shaw. Gibbs Smith, Publishers, 2005. Hardcover, $29.95.
In this beautifully finished book, two of the Vineyards 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. Frenchs constructions
do the jobs they are designed for and last a very long time
almost certainly longer than the clients who commissioned them.
Mr. Frenchs art doesnt stand in museums; it is all around
Marthas 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 Shaws photographs attest. The publishers
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 Marthas Vineyard. Just as Mr. Frenchs
designs reveal the eye of an artist and the hands of a master craftsman,
Ms. Shaws images confirm her place, long-held, as one of the
Vineyards very best photographers. For a collection of Alison
Shaw photos, the price ($29.95) is very reasonable.
Her assignment, to show Mr. Frenchs work, is documentary or
industrial photography, a departure from Ms. Shaws 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.
Shaws photographs are in the book to illustrate Lew Frenchs
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 Marthas
Vineyard. Some are Mr. Frenchs 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 doesnt 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
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 Terkels 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.