“Love releases in each of us the capacity to be happy.” Perhaps this line more than any other hints at the essence of T. Elizabeth Bell’s book “Goats in the Time of Love.” The rest of the title — “A Martha’s Vineyard Love Story with Goats, a Dog, and Some Recipes” — makes perfect sense as soon as you dive into the novel.
The lovers in Bell’s story are Sky Harrington, a young New York City high-society lawyer who has fled her two-timing fiancé for the healing powers of the Vineyard, where she spent many glorious summers with her grandmother as a child. And then there is Nate Batchelor (a.k.a. Nate the Goat Guy). Yes, Nate is into goats. In fact, he makes his living as a goatscaper.
Bell says, “I thought ‘goatscaping’ was a funny word, and goats are clever, naughty, and cute. I’d read about a few goat escapes around the Island, and seen goats clearing brush at Cedar Tree Neck and Waskosim’s Rock. And there are goats somewhere on Tisbury Great Pond. It’s pretty amazing what they can do.”
Bell sets Sky up as the quintessential summer person by introducing her struggling in vain to shuck clams — and making a mess of it. We also immediately meet her snobbish Manhattan mother, who has nothing but criticism for Sky’s escape from her former life. About her, Bell writes: “But worst of all, the constant criticisms: stiletto jabs that slip by Sky’s defenses and — even now — left her wounded and bewildered.” Her mother is the tip of the iceberg of her elite city friends who, when visiting Sky, typify the stereotype of rich vacationers and their sense of entitlement at the expense of year-rounders, especially those with Vineyard families who go back generations.
Bell creates tension by making Nate one of those families — living a life wholly opposite of Sky’s. Nate’s a working-class Vineyarder through and through: “Like most Islanders, Nate could do almost anything and everything. Fisherman, carpenter, line cook, landscaper, roofer, scalloper, musician (never going to make a living at that), organic farmer, bike mechanic, part-time cop, caretaker, and probably a few others he’d forgotten.”
But it is as a goatscaper that he decides to make his living. “He had the idea of starting his goatscaping business after hearing a piece on NPR … If they’ll pay thirty bucks for artisanal local cheese, he figured, the Vineyard summer folk would probably pay anything to rid their fancy properties of poison ivy and bittersweet. It seemed like a no-brainer. What he hadn’t fully appreciated was the actual goat aspect of the business.” Throughout the novel, his endearing goats and their offspring cause one amusing — at least to us — mishap after another.
Despite the stark differences in background and socioeconomic status, the chemistry starts at first sight. “Sky found Nate almost disconcertingly good-looking. He was tall and rangy … tan, lean, and muscular … Wavy brownish-blond hair streaked by the sun … hazel eyes creased at the corners … Nice-guy-next-door with a subtly sexy charisma wrapped up in a very attractive package … Too bad he was a goatscaper.”
Ignoring warnings from his closest friend about getting involved and too attached, Nate falls in love. And so too does Sky, much to her surprise, after having established between them up front that this was a summer fling.
Throughout, their romance swings between a sublime connection that overcomes their differences to distressing misunderstandings that send both into preconceived notions of the other and their motives. Bell keeps you rooting for the couple, however, despite the foolish mistakes both make in the relationship.
Oh, and that mention in the extended titled about recipes, Bell says, “One of my favorite things about the Vineyard is the great food from the farmers markets, the local cheeses and seafood — and I love to cook. So, Vineyard-inspired food [in the novel] ended up being part of the ‘virtual tour’ that you get with ‘Goats.’”
She says that the title “Goats in the Time of Love” makes an intentional reference to the famous novel by Gabriel García Márquez, “Love in the Time of Cholera.”
“I wanted the title to have ‘love’ in it, and ‘goats,’ and my husband threw out ‘Love in the Time of Goats,’ which we flipped to ‘Goats in the Time of Love,’” Bells explains. And just to make sure we didn’t miss the reference, Bell slips “Love in the Time of Cholera” into a scene at West Tisbury’s Dumptique.
Bell, who spends half her time here, captures the Island so exactingly the scenes unfold almost cinematically. The book, as the title says, is indeed a loving ode to the Vineyard. And one that full-time, seasonal, and tourists alike can enjoy.
“Love in the Time of Goats,” by T. Elizabeth Bell. Available online and at Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven, and Edgartown Books, $14.