Conditions of Faith by Alex Miller


Alex Miller has won the Miles Franklin Award twice and is a much loved writer in Australia.  His book Journey to the Stone Country was recommended by Faye Christenberry; I picked up this one because the public library has a copy of it. 

A young Australian woman who resists her father's pressure to go to graduate school and live the life of an academic, and impetuously marries a French and Scottish man who hopes to build the great Harbor Bridge in Sydney.  Ultimately Emily Stanton finds the constrained life of wife and mother too confining, and along the way we have wonderfully detailed descriptions of Paris, Chartres (it's always raining), and Sidi bou-Said in Tunisia in the 1920s.  Here's a taste of the description of the house Emily visits:

The courtyard was overlooked on all sides by blue-painted shuttered windows and doors and was open to the sky.  At its center there was a fountain fashioned from shallow fluted copper disks.  Water trickled from a bronze spout at the top of the fountain and fell from one disk to the next, filling the courtyard with a musical tinkling, as if someone idled upon a xylophone.

The book jacket compares Emily to Henry James' Isabel Archer.  First, I should acknowledge that a comparison to the wonderful Henry James is bold.  My reaction to Portrait of a Lady is that it was about the writing, not the story.  I do believe Henry James was pointing out the wretched position of women, but really, Isabel could hardly have managed to find a more evil husband, not to mention mentor in Madame Merle.  And then there is her ridiculous friend Henrietta Stackpole. 

The story of Emily Stanton is more nuanced.  Her husband is of his time, but not evil; they truly care for one another.  When she first encounters his mother, they detest one another.  When they find themselves in intense circumstances, all their enmity is gone.  Both Emily and Isabel struggle with the question of what to do with their lives.  Isabel seems to let Madame Merle manipulate her into an inescapable situation.  Emily tells her friend Antoine that the reason mothers with their babies wear a look of smug security is because "they know that so long as their child needs them they have solved the problem of a reason for living." 

The variety of characters, the great descriptions of exotic places, and the satisfying narrative make this one of my favorite books in a long time.

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