Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Published 2008, Other Press LLC, ISBN-13: 978-1-59051-283-8; ISBN-10:  1-59051-283-9, 236 pages

I flipped through the front pages of The Open Door to see if this was Elizabeth Maguire's debut novel only to discover that Elizabeth passed away in 2006 from ovarian cancer at the age of 47.  For the news announcement click here.  Needless to say, I was shocked and saddened by the early death of a woman from such an insidious disease.

The Open Door was completed before her death and published posthumously.

The protagonist of The Open Door is Constance Fenimore Woolson.  Constance (March 5, 1840 - January 24, 1894) was a pioneer in many ways; she gained acclamation for her writing and she lived her life in an somewhat unconventional manner eschewing society's dictates.

Constance was the 6th child of Charles and Hannah Woolson.  Family tragedies struck with regular frequency with deaths of several of Constance's siblings.

The Open Door commences in 1856 when Constance discovers her love of water while canoeing, a passion she retained the remainder of her life.

After her father's death in 1869, Constance was caregiver to her ill mother for the next decade.  During this time, she wrote for Harper's and enjoyed some financial success.  She wrote travel sketches from her extensive journeys through Southeastern United States, which she dearly misses when she takes ship for England after her mother passes away.

Constance's lifelong desire is to meet Henry James, whom she considers foremost amongst authors.  She often denigrates herself as a second-rate author.  Nevertheless, she is prolific.  Constance's dream comes true; she meets Henry James and forms a friendship.  She considers it a marriage of minds and is appalled at the thought of traditional marriage.

Constance travels extensively through Europe and London.  During this time, she has a love affair with Clarence King, whom she only sees occasionally through the years.  Henry James is present in her life on a frequent basis, even living in the ground floor of her home for a year.

Constance does not give James her heart and body, but she unreservedly shares her mind with him.  She trusts James entirely with her thoughts and ambitions until one day she discovers James has kept a secret from her.  A clandestine matter that doesn't change her opinion of James, but James is unable to reconcile himself to Constance's intimate knowledge.  He reacts by betraying all that is dear to Constance about their relationship in a most public manner.

Physically, Constance suffers from a unusual malady and seeks medical assistance both in London and Europe.  She is subjected to all manner of treatments, but continues to faithfully write. 

Maguire's writing flows and sweeps you along.  The Open Door is an easy read (I read it in one day).  I feel Maguire portrayed a full-developed character in Constance.  I was able to empathize with Constance's struggles - physically, mentally and emotionally.

An excerpt from the Prologue demonstrates Maguire's relaxed style:

"It is largely the tale of a friendship:  a friendship made, and lost.  It is not an exercise in finger-pointing or blame - which you know I abhor.  But I take satisfaction, still, in getting at the truth of what happened.  Which is NOT the same as the way it looked...!"

Most of all, Maguire sparked an interest in a woman whom I had never heard of before.  Good writing does that.  My only reservation, and this is probably my own bias, is the novel is quite short which left me feeling somewhat discontent that I couldn't have spent more time in Constance's world.

If you wish to discover more about this fascinating woman, the Constance Fenimore Woolson Society is a font of information.

RATING:  3 Stars ***(Good)

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