Mason’s Retreat, by Christopher Tilghman

This is a good story. In some ways, it was the perfect reading experience: I was carried away into the world of the story, caught up in the characters’ concerns. With some books (including most mysteries) the adrenaline kicks in and has me racing for the end, but with this book each scene drew me on, gently, ineluctably. There was just enough description to enable me to visualise everything without the descriptive passages overpowering the action. The characters seemed like people I knew, and the point of view moved between them in a natural way that did not disrupt the story. And it wasn’t until I finished the last page that I began to consider the larger implications of what I had read.

Harry Mason tells the story of his grandparents, Edith and Edward Mason, as they return to the U.S. in 1936 after many years of living in England. Edward fancies himself a great businessman, but his factory in Manchester, England, has been declining for many years and he is finally being forced to bring his wife and two sons, Sebastien and Simon (Harry’s father), home to take up residence in the family estate he has inherited from his aunt: some acres and a house which has been left empty and unattended for years and is now filled with mold and fallen plaster.

The Retreat is located on Maryland’s eastern shore, and one of the great joys of this book is seeing how this cosmopolitan, yet unsophisticated family reacts to their first encounter with life in such a remote backwater and how they adjust over the course of time to life among the farmers, white and black, and the inbred owners of neighboring estates. Anyone who has been to the eastern shore will appreciate these descriptions of the life and landscape in the days before the Bay Bridge brought hordes of tourists and retirees.

I initially picked up the book because the opening scenes take place on the Normandie, a pre-World War II luxury liner which has been part of my personal mythology since staying in the Normandie Hotel in Puerto Rico in the 1990s. Yet I quickly became absorbed in the concerns of all the characters as they try to figure out how best to live their lives and accommodate each other. I forgot about the Normandie until I finished the book and found myself wondering about the remnants of the past, what is new and what we carry forward.

A most satisfying read, I highly recommend this book and will be looking for others by this author.

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