I came across Claire de Lune while browsing through the local Barnes and Noble store, with a gift card in my pocket. It looked like an interesting read and I loved the cover, so I bought it. It tells the story of Allen Liles, a young woman who takes a post as an assistant professor at a community college in the pre-WWII years of the 1940’s. Allen is a gifted English teacher, but she is young and yearns to be free of the conventions of her time and not stuck in rural Missouri with few prospects for excitement and variety. Allen feels stifled by her colleagues and the upcoming nuptials of one of the other English teachers. Then she befriends two of her students, the outgoing and carefree George, and the brooding and captivating Toby. The boundary between student and teacher is broken, and Allen seeks to keep their friendship a secret. In time, though, tongues wag, and all Allen holds dear is put into jeopardy.
I really enjoyed reading this novel, which is published posthumously, fifty years after Ms. Carleton’s previous bestseller, The Moonflower Vine. Carleton writes of another era – a time when college professors kept strict boundaries between themselves and their students and when a woman’s reputation could make or break her both professionally and personally. Through the events of this novel, Allen is forced to mature both personally and professionally, and struggles with the conflicting emotions of what she wants versus what she needs to do to keep her job and reputation. It’s a coming of age story, but coming of age in young adulthood. Allen struggles to let go of her dreams and ambitions and following her heart in order to fit into society and to be a productive adult. Where does one draw the line?
Another reason I liked this book was Carleton’s writing. Her prose is so vivid and rich. Her descriptions of the nights when Allen was off running through the parks with George and Toby captured the sense of ripeness of a spring evening – the sense of fullness about to burst into full bloom – the awakening of inner feelings. I really enjoyed it. It reminded me a bit, too, of Romeo and Juliet – where all the good things happen at night and the bad things during the day until the final resolution.
All in all, a good read – but not for the reader who is rooted in today’s typical fiction. This isn’t a girl meets boy and then they have an affair story. (In fact, Allen and Toby’s relationship never progresses to that point). It’s a reflection on the choices one makes when one is on the threshold of adulthood, told in a time period when society was much different than it is today.