Review: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

A Lost Lady [1923] – ★★★★1/2

Her eyes, when they laughed for a moment into one’s own, seemed to promise a wild delight that he had not found in life. “I know where it is”, they seemed to say, “I could show you!“….She had always the power of suggesting things lovelier than herself, as the perfume of a single flower may call up the whole sweetness of spring” [Willa Cather, 1923: 136, 137].

I was impressed with Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop [1927], which I read in spring, and have now decided to try out another book by her. I ended up liking A Lost Lady even more than Death Comes for the Archbishop. The novel’s location is Sweet Water, a town in the “American West”, which is one of the hubs of the transcontinental railroad business activity. Marian Forrester, the young wife of successful Captain Daniel Forrester, holds a fascination for the entire community of Sweet Water, from the most hardened, aging businessmen to the children of local grocery men. Mrs. Forrester only comes to town to stay for her summer holidays, but her name is well-known and her coming is eagerly anticipated, especially by young Neil Herbert, the nephew of Judge Pommeroy. Mrs. Forrester is, indeed, “bewitching”, the very definition of charm, grace and sophistication, “belonging to a different world”, “with a glance that made one’s blood tingle” [Cather, 1923: 38]. Amidst challenging times for the community, with financial hardship in sight for everyone, can Marian Forrester and her “elegant” world of principles survive? And then, who Mrs. Forrester really is? A Lost Lady may not be a classic book with a fully fledged plot that spans hundreds of pages and unforgettable twists, but probably that is where its charm lies – in its deceptively simple, beautifully-written story that reveals slowly its quiet character study that, in turn, has the ability to provoke and move.

American novelist Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road [1961]) once said: “I’m only interested in stories that are about the crushing of the human heart.” Arguably, A Lost Lady is exactly one of these stories. Much like her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, A Lost Lady relies much on descriptions, and there is a feeling of unhurried sweetness to the narrative, which is distinguished by simplicity. Similarly to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby [1925], which was published two years after A Lost Lady and was probably inspired by it, there is a tone of pure nostalgia in the telling of this story, a sense of a quiet tragedy unfolding in the background, and, clearly, as in The Great Gatsby – a fascination by narrator with one mysterious and enchanting “outsider” to a community.

From mischievous, but kind-hearted local boys and arrogant teenager Ivy Peters, to mysterious bachelor of forty Frank Ellinger and important Judge Pommeroy, all members of the male sex in the story (one way or another) express boundless respect and devotion that borders obsession with regards to Mrs. Forrester: “they could not imagine her in any dress or situation in which she would not be charming” [Cather, 1923: 7]; “There could not no negative encounter, however slight, with Mrs. Forrester. If she merely bowed to you, merely looked at you, it constituted a personal relation. Something about her took hold of one in a flash; one became acutely conscious of her, of her fragility and grace, of her mouth which could say so much without words; of her eyes, lively, laughing, intimate, nearly always a little mocking” [1923: 32]. Because of one enigmatic and beautiful main heroine that may or may not be falling on hard times and her entourage of male admirers, there is obviously a touch of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady [1881] in Cather’s novel, but Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence [1920] may provide a closer comparison still. Like Madame Olenska in The Age of Innocence, Mrs. Forrester in A Lost Lady exercises this exotic, mysterious power over a person younger than she is. Both Madame Olenska and Mrs. Forrester are also sophisticated and immensely charming women with rich personal histories. There are also similar themes of a marriage being “a trap” and longing for personal freedom: “[Mrs. Forrester] preferred life on any terms” [Willa Cather, 1923: 17].

Willa Cather’s language alone makes the prose a joy to read, but what also strikes me about her writing is that she never “forces” her narrative or characters on the reader as so many author writers have the habit of doing. A Lost Lady is hardly an episodic novel and, yet, there is this sense that its characters have always existed inside this rich, picturesque literary palette and we, as readers, simply discover each scene and character slowly, as though incidentally. The narrative is almost too unassuming, but then a certain phrase or a sentence will leave the reader with much depth or emotion to sift through, such as when the heroine’s power to live is described as “grown by being held back” [Cather, 1923: 124] or books described as being “living creatures”, capable of bringing the reader into “this great world” where they can “eavesdrop upon the past” [Cather, 1923: 70].

A Lost Lady is a story of obsession, devotion and disillusionment, and as much a “coming-of-age” story as a tale of aging gracefully. Strangely enough, the novel’s imperfections lend it its special charm. One critic once said of John Williams’ novel Stoner [1965] that it was a book where “unpromising material was dramatised so coolly”. The same can be said of A Lost Lady, which has a surprisingly memorable, touching and gentle narrative that also provides an intriguing insight into a fascinating central character.

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11 thoughts on “Review: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

  1. I love Willa Cather – she resides at the very top of my personal canon. It’s interesting that you compare her to Edith Wharton (another author whom I adore) and The Age of Innocence, because I have long felt that the two of them were twin stars, burning so brightly (Wharton won the Pulitzer in 1921, Wharton in 1923) at the same time. There isn’t a single book by Cather that I don’t love, although I didn’t find her debut novel to be as compelling as her others, and Saphira and the Slave Girl was a difficult read. I only have two novels left: Shadows on the Rock and My Mortal Enemy, but I am reluctant to read them because that will mean that I live in a world where I have no more Willa Cather novels to anticipate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Willa Cather is brilliant, I am glad to find another fan! I was so impressed by Death Comes for the Archbishop that I decided to read this one and loved it even more! Cather’s The Professor’s House will be my next read. I understand what you are saying about taking time before reading her books. Her books are so good that I also love to know that there are still good books by her waiting for me.

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