Mason’s Retreat by Christopher Tilghman


One of my favorite books of 2013 was Christopher Tilghman’s The Right-Hand Shore. Published some years after Mason’s Retreat, it was a prequel to Mason’s Retreat. A main character of these two books is the Retreat, the decaying plantation on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that was originally a land grant to the first Mason, a Catholic who fled England in the 1650s.

We encounter Edward Mason in The Right-Hand Shore as a youngish man being considered to inherit the Retreat as he is one of two relatives equally close to the owner who is dying without direct descendents. He hears the long tortuous story of the Retreat and accepts the challenge of ownership, then goes to England where he operates a factory and has a family.

As Mason’s Retreat opens, his fortunes have declined, one son despises him while the other adores him, he’s been unfaithful to his wife and he turns to his Maryland property to sustain him and the family. Though the farm can feed them, Edward grows restless and involves himself disasterously in work others know how to do. Planning a dinner party for the local gentry distracts him for months, but that doesn’t go well either. The son who despises him, Sebastien, a solitary teenager, loves the farm and is finding a life he loves and is overjoyed when Edward is called back to England. Edward’s fortunes change again as he is useful in this period before World War II begins.

Edith, Edward’s wife is a well-drawn character. She has complicated, interesting roles to play as a long suffering wife, a mother whose children have competing interests, and a woman with her own love interest. Edward seems a bumbling idiot when he is at the Retreat, though his character in the prequel is much more sensitive and intelligent. The Retreat itself continues to have an unfortunate effect on the characters in this book: ¬†Edward is never happy there, but escapes and though Edith and Sebastien grow to love the farm, their time there is ultimately disasterous.

I found The Right-Hand Shore to be a far superior book in terms of the breadth and depth of characters.

Christopher Tilghman, Mason’s Retreat, Random House, 1996, 290 pages.

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