‘Before We Sleep’ Book Review: Novel’s Characters Seem Unknown to Themselves

  • Photographed at his home on May 11, 2107, Jeffrey Lent, of Tunbridge, Vt., is the author of the new novel "Before We Sleep." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2017

Jeffrey Lent’s new novel, Before We Sleep, is set in the White River Valley, in a town called Moorefield, but is unmistakably Chelsea, with its double common, its brick stores and its West Hill.

Reading a work of fiction set in one’s own neighborhood is a relatively rare occasion, something White River Valley residents might well treasure. An artist’s perceptions are sharp, and there might be some insight into life in the hills and valleys that helps us see them in a new light.

For the most part, Lent, a Vermont native who has set some of his previous work in his home state, notably In the Fall, the post-Civil War novel that made his name, lovingly evokes the surroundings his characters inhabit, describing a mostly vanished Vermont in the first half of the 20th century and into the late 1960s.

But Before We Sleep suffers a bit from woolly writing, as if Lent had sheared his story off his sheep, but hadn’t quite spun it into the fine thread meant to draw a reader along. Passages of description and dialogue rise up in teetering piles before collapsing of their own weight, and the characters seem less like independent spirits than like creations of an author grasping for more than omniscience; they are imprisoned in their courses of action, and often seem unknown to themselves, and therefore dull.

The story proceeds along two tracks. The first follows Katey Snow, who at 17 has snuck away from her Moorefield home in search of some truth that Lent only hints at. Katey’s parents have been concealing a great secret.

“What she knew was come morning and the discovery that she was gone, he would not allow her mother to involve the police. He’d know she was doing what she had to do, that she always had. He’d let her go. In this way he’d help her go. Even as he’d understand he was part of the reason she had to leave.”

The second track follows Ruth Snow, nee Hale, Katey’s mother. The maiden name is important, as Lent gives us plenty of background about Ruth and her future husband, Oliver Snow, and their families. Ruth and Oliver are wed young and the next we know, he’s coming back from service in World War II with its shadow hanging heavily over him.

One of the stranger features of Before We Sleep is the toggling back and forth between the stories of these two women — one setting up house with her shell-shocked husband, the other off on the first major quest of her young life — only to find that much of their time is spent contemplating men or, in Katey’s case, being talked at by men. When Ruth and her mother sit down to talk, they trade notes on writers, and sure enough, all of them are men, too.

Perhaps Lent is making the point that these women are trying to navigate a man’s world, and that’s surely true, but at times they seem unable to consider anything else. Although Lent often refers to the changing world, something that Ruth’s mother tries to protect her from and that causes Ruth to fear for Katey, there are more points of comparison than of contrast between Ruth’s story and her daughter’s.

While Ruth is a rooted person, Katey’s story is a picaresque, taking her to Maine, for her first look at the ocean. (How it is that Ruth and Oliver, who are reasonably well off, never managed to take their daughter to Boston was a mystery to me.) Then she heads for Virginia, in search of a central figure in her life.

This is a story with some promise. A clever, lissome Vermont teen takes to the open road in her father’s 1956 Ford pickup in the early summer of 1968 or so; those are some elements to conjure with.

But Lent’s style, which seems to run almost exactly counter to William Strunk’s classic dictum, “Omit needless words,” buries this sleek premise under a heap of portentousness. Too often I found myself stumbling over a surfeit of words or fussy syntax trying to get to the purpose of a sentence or a paragraph. Even the dialogue is overburdened with long, quasi-philosophical speeches. And despite the variety of characters Katey encounters, much of their speech sounds the same, a kind of exaggerated country talk. And maybe it’s something about Katey, but people always seem to be asking her some version of “Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

Lent tends to bathe the proceedings in an undifferentiated, cloying, honey-colored light, as if heaven were watching over the characters, or as if they all possess some kind of innate innocence or goodness. Everyone is doing what they have to do, and the weight of that predestination is tiresome. This is partly a function of Lent’s solemn, writerly style.

Of Oliver Snow he writes: “And, those weeks after the truth came to Katey, he caught her often looking at him, studying, trying to determine something of him she’d never before contemplated. Or had reason to. He was the silent man and in his silence he continued on as he always had. Certain both women would come to understanding and life would slowly regain what slender compass waver it had long attained.”

Eventually, both Katey and Ruth find what they were seeking, more or less, after some trials, Ruth’s at home and Katey’s on the road. Katey finds that while the world is more open for a young woman of her generation, it isn’t necessarily more hospitable. Ruth’s discovery, made around the same time as Katey’s, seems less heartening still.

Fans of Lent’s previous work might well enjoy Before We Sleep, and Upper Valley readers might enjoy a book set in familiar terrain. But Lent’s style makes following what could be a brisk adventure into a bit of a chore.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.