Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Swan House by Elizabeth Musser ~ a Review

During my senior year at Baylor, I found myself at a crossroads of what to pursue after college graduation: searching for a job in marketing and writing, or pursuing a Masters (and potentially a Doctorate) in English literature. I loved to write, and I could happily envision myself teaching on a university campus. I consulted my Shakespeare professor, Dr. Hanks, and he advised me that if I were to go on in literature, I would absolutely need to study French.

Say whaat??!

I was struggling to complete a Spanish minor (which I did not complete - a near miss by two classes), so taking up French sounded as appetizing as chewing (and swallowing) a stack of Rosetta Stone CDs. My roommate and co-English-major, Jessica, fell over laughing when I told her about my conversation with Dr. Hanks. We both knew it was an impossible, undesirable task at that point (last semester, senior year burn out!) for me to take on learning French!

So for that reason alone - that she had the desire and perseverance to learn French - Elizabeth Musser has my respect. Never mind that she can write! Or that she's adorable. Or that she's served as a missionary (in France, for goodness sakes) for the past thirty years. Or that she's intelligent and caring and has exercised her writing gifts in bold and untiring measures. Her love for the French language and France is beyond me. But - I sure admire her for it.

My friend Krista loaned The Swan House to me, which was actually on loan to her by a long-time South Georgia friend (thanks, Denise!). I'd never been introduced to Elizabeth Musser or to her books, so what a delight to discover a new author whose work I can't put down. And even more delightful, she's got more books to offer.

Published in 2001, the book's title comes from a real home in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood, which serves as the next-door residence of fictional 16-year-old Mary Swan Middleton. Set in the 1960's, The Swan House tells stories of the civil rights era through the eyes of a young girl from a wealthy family.

Personally, I love all the Atlanta references. My big brother Trey, an Atlanta-area resident for about fifteen years now, introduced us to Buckhead and the Varsity and so many of the landmarks in this novel. Even though my familiarity with the city is slight, I identified with and enjoyed learning about actual events and historical landmarks throughout Atlanta's history.

What I loved:
- Musser's character development. I found myself both cheering for and feeling leary toward almost all of the characters at different points in the story. Mary Swan is the clear protagonist, but a far from perfect one. All of the characters display positive and negative attributes - something that makes them credible.

- With my literature background, I appreciate Musser's nod to poetry and literature throughout her writing. But she keeps a light touch. For those of us who were simply exposed to great literature, but not proficient in the classics, Musser's poetic insights add interest without drowning the reader.

- Interesting to watch the civil rights movement unfold through the eyes of a wealthy, white teenager.  Mary Swan's tug towards a Christian, Biblical viewpoint is a believable, gradual shift. She is drawn to truth in an organic, necessary sense - trying to make sense of the tragedy and unfair attitudes surrounding her situation. In the space of her sixteenth year, she deals with the loss of her mother, a first romance (or two), civil rights issues pounding her hometown Atlanta, serving the poor, making sense of her WASP family,  and uncovering the strains of mental illness that weave through her family. A lot to sort through, which makes her need for Biblical truth both rousing and practical.

My favorite character - of course - little Miss Abagail with her sparkling eyes, a white woman from a privileged background who made her home in the impoverished Grant Park, a poor black section of southern Atlanta. We all need a little (or a lot) of Miss Abagail in our lives.

What I didn't love:
- That I'm just now hearing about Musser and her books.

Elizabeth Musser's author tagline, "Entertainment with Soul," runs deep through this novel. Yes and yes. The Swan House is actually the first of a novel set, so I expect to be reading the sequel, The Dwelling Place, soon.
Because I enjoyed Musser's writing so much (and yes, Krista, you told me I would!), I have a few more of her books on my list. Find out more about the charming Elizabeth Musser and her novels (and ministry) here.
And enjoy!