Sunday, August 22, 2021

Painting the Light by Sally Cabot Gunning examines women's freedoms on Martha's Vineyard in 1898

Gunning’s sixth historical novel, set on Martha’s Vineyard in 1898, is a luminous portrait of a woman regaining her independence.

Ida Pease wasn’t always a farm wife; she had grown up on Boston’s Beacon Hill and trained as a watercolor artist. After the tragic deaths of everyone in her family, Ida had been charmed by a sheep farmer from Vineyard Haven, Ezra Pease, and chose to marry him – thus giving him access to her money.

Two years later, left in charge of the lambing and harvest while Ezra occupies himself elsewhere, she regrets her hasty decision. When the Portland is wrecked in a storm while sailing to Maine, and Ida learns Ezra and his business partner, Mose Barstow, were aboard, she is stunned but can’t muster up grief for her unpleasant late husband.

Ezra’s death, however, opens a Pandora’s box of secrets, the gradual revelation of which drives the plot along. Ida abruptly finds herself without means and dependent on others for support and answers – among them Ezra’s flinty Aunt Ruth and Henry Barstow, Mose’s brother and executor, to whom Ida has always felt an inexplicable connection.

The pacing is unhurried, but this isn’t a weakness: depictions of the island’s pastoral beauty and the hard work of rural life encourage lingering. The characters have significant depth and multiple rough edges, Ida included.

Eager to return to Boston and resume painting, Ida is forced instead to fight for every inch of emotional ground and every dollar owed to her. She also takes up bicycling – these scenes feel wonderfully freeing – though many island residents find her actions unladylike. The background details on the women’s suffrage movement are a natural fit for this intricate tale of a woman learning to observe the true colors of the world around her.

Painting the Light is out now from William Morrow; I reviewed it from an Edelweiss e-copy for the August issue of Historical Novels Review.

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