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Sarton's novels an affirmation of humanity by Samira Mehta

This week, I am going to veer a bit off topic in the book review department and instead of reviewing a specific book, I am going to discuss an author. May Sarton was a Cambridge poet and novelist, and most of her novels are set in New England, in houses with faded wallpapers, cretonne curtains, old-fashioned bathrooms, and great stone fireplaces.

Her characters, who live in a world where one has cocktails before dinner and all of whom do their own cooking even though they clearly have the money to hire a cook, often find themselves questioning the meaning of their existence in response to the death of a loved one or some other life change such as the marriage of a child. Sarton often writes about the struggle to come to terms with one's self and one's choices in middle age, making it clear that she views that maturing process as continuing throughout one's life.

I have found May Sarton's novels to be very reassuring. The first one I ever read, "The Magnificent Spinster," smelled of fresh-cut pine, and all her novels seem infused with that scent. She writes with the same wholesome objectivity as Madeline L'Engle, and manages to do so without being preachy; her characters are uncertain of themselves, still learning. Her novels evoke fresh-baked bread and mulch in the garden and prompt images of the woods, ocean, and sunlight streaming across the floor.

Sarton's novels operate on the assumption that people are basically good, and when they are hurtful, they are confused or in pain rather than evil. On the other hand, she does not minimize the pain that confused actions can cause. Her characters try to deal with this pain through understanding, belief in community, and generosity of heart.

Community is important in Sarton's novels, and it frequently plays an interesting role in her plots. When, in "The Education of Harriet Hatfield," the title character opens a bookstore for women in Summerville, MA, she at first resents the people who try to draw her into the community; but when her store is vandalized because the vandals suspect that she is a lesbian, she learns to depend on the people around her and allow them to depend on her.

At the same time that community and mutual responsibility are stressed, Sarton's novels also embrace a commitment to individualism and self-fulfillment. She does not espouse giving one's self up to the community, and she portrays as strong those people, especially women, who have the courage to appreciate their own company and be the source of their own fulfillment. These people, she points out, are better members of a community than those who are unable to function outside of a web of connections.

I have loved getting to know May Sarton. Among her other books are "The Small Room," "Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing," "Kinds of Love," "Faithful are the Wounds," and "The Birth of a Grandfather." I can especially recommend all of these books, and would encourage anybody to seek out the rest of Sarton's novels, as well as her poetry and journals.

The Phoenix Online, December 10, 1999