Wednesday, March 26, 2014

THE BLIND CONTESSA'S NEW MACHINE, an extraordinarily beautiful first novel


THE BLIND CONTESSA'S NEW MACHINE
CAREY WALLACE

Penguin
$14.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: In the early 1800s, a young Italian contessa, Carolina Fantoni, realizes she is going blind shortly before she marries the town's most sought-after bachelor. Her parents don't believe her, nor does her fiancé. The only one who understands is the eccentric local inventor and her longtime companion, Turri. When her eyesight dims forever, Carolina can no longer see her beloved lake or the rich hues of her own dresses. But as darkness erases her world, she discovers one place she can still see--in her dreams. Carolina creates a vivid dreaming life, in which she can not only see, but also fly, exploring lands she had never known.

Desperate to communicate with Carolina, Turri invents a peculiar machine for her: the world's first typewriter. His gift ignites a passionate love affair that will change both of their lives forever.

Based on the true story of a nineteenth-century inventor and his innovative contraption, The Blind Contessa's New Machine is an enchanting confection of love and the triumph of the imagination.

My Review: On the eve of her wedding to the most eligible, handsomest bachelor in her small world, Contessa Carolina Fantoni announces to him that she is going blind. He laughs dismissively, then kisses her indulgently, thus setting the tone for their entire relationship. After full blindness sets in, her eccentric childhood friend and neighbor, a married inventor and amateur scientist, creates for her the world's first typewriter, that she may continue to communicate with the outside world. And thus a passionate affair begins, one that bids fair to destroy two marriages and possibly four lives. That is hardly a new plot nor is there a shocking modern-sensibilities dénouement. But in its bittersweet presentation, it's clear that the author understands the losses of compromise and accommodation that all relationships demand of us.

I am mortally afraid of only a few things in this life: 1) Blindness; 2) being eaten by a shark; and 3) suffocating/drowning. My mother went blind a year or more before she died, and it was a torture. She read passionately, and suddenly couldn't; she was never able to adapt to audiobooks. This rings me like a bell, a tocsin of terror that has me sweating and crying as I type this on a c-o-l-d night. And this book's careful, polished prose made that horrific nightmare (literally for me, at least once a year) endurable, survivable, where in hands less skilled than Carey Wallace's I would simply have burned the book and paid the library for it.

How she did this is, she presented the onset and completion of the process in a series of vignettes that define what it is to see, and to judge the world on what is seen; Wallace makes that process so arbitrary, so essentially meaningless, that as the Contessa charts her progress into eternal night, she and the reader understand that vision as primary perception is a habit of mind. The Contessa plumbs the darkness fearlessly. She lives in it, after she accepts its permanence, with more grace than she appeared to muster during her sighted years.

It's quite a lovely achievement, and it's told in lovely sentences. Wallace, whose author photo rather distressingly resembles a high-school senior picture, had an excellent editor, and handed that editor a lovely book to begin with, you can be sure. This sort of prose doesn't get forged into being on an editor's anvil, it gets the spurs and cracks annealed out of it. Something of the book's raw state remains, thank goodness, because there are some places where opportunities are missed and others are simply AWOL where they would have been welcome. Why thank goodness? Because if this effort were to be perfect, I'd have to hunt this youngster down and kill her in furious writerly envy, that's why.

And I don't want to go to jail over a book.

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