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June 5, 2005 Sunday

Reviewed by Ellen Emry Heltzel

Twilight, a deceptively simple and tender novel by Katherine Mosby, is the story of a young American woman who, in the early part of the 20th century, ditches her uptight, upper-crust background and ends up risking everything for illicit love. Think of Edith Wharton with a dash of Colette.

That’s not meant to be a slam: Mosby, a seasoned novelist herself, reflects the spirit of these extraordinary writers with her deft ability to parse character and create atmosphere.

Lavinia Gibbs, alas, is no beauty. But financial means and social prominence have a way of covering a host of ills. The reason she spurns these advantages is set up in the novel’s opening pages. There, at a party when she’s still an impressionable girl, her brothers’ bad-boy friend introduces her to a sensuality that she can’t forget.

The friend will end up dead as a result of World War I, one of many handsome and feckless young men to perish in the trenches. But, a decade later, she can’t bring herself to marry Mr. Dull and secure her last, best chance for respectable dowagerhood. Instead, she’s sent packing for Paris.

Being banished to the City of Light hardly sounds like punishment. Still, in Lavinia’s case, it comes with psychological dislocation and “a loneliness she thought at times might be fatal.” Paris in the 1930s is a place of unsettled charm, in which “splendor and squalor were married,” and Lavinia’s challenge is figuring out how to negotiate between the two.

Her first lover dies fighting Franco in Spain. Meanwhile, she gets a job, less to supplement the allowance from home than to find a sense of purpose. And it’s through her work, not because of it, that she finds meaning. She falls in love with the Frenchman who hired her, even though he is an improbable match, older and married and mysterious about his life apart from her.

As their affair progresses, Lavinia remarks on her mother’s words about women who had affairs with married men: “poor lost souls – condemned to live in perpetual twilight.” Although she knows her mother was right, she cannot resist the call of her heart.

The story’s outcome feels a bit abrupt, but everything else about it feels nuanced, giving the sense that life deeply lived is never tidy but can be rich. Mosby complements this observation by rendering the scenes in a moody chiaroscuro that seems just right:

“For the rest of the day she watched the sky absorb the cold blue of the slate roofs, until only the palest color was left, leaving the world a dull gray interrupted only by the black gleam of chimney pots glossed by the light rain.”

Copyright 2005 Times Publishing Company (Florida)