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Books Thu Dec 19 2013

Book Review: Liliane's Balcony: A Novella of Fallingwater by Kelcey Parker

LB_lores200.jpgI had never heard of Fallingwater before opening the pages of Kelcey Parker's new book, but a quick Google search was enough to make me ashamed of my lack of architectural knowledge. The National Historic Landmark is one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most lauded designs, breathtaking even through my smudged laptop screen. Built over a waterfall, the house manages to combine the sleek exterior and the sinuous drama of its natural location. It's a fitting setting for Liliane's Balcony, a novella that explores the contradictory relationship between a person's fa├žade and the complicated interior life that lies behind it.

The marriage between Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann, the real-life owners of Fallingwater, is at the core of the novella. Their union was marred by Edgar's infidelities, and the series of heartbreaks that Liliane suffers will eventually lead to her suicide. The novella alternates between this tragic event and the fictional lives of four tourists: the wife in a struggling marriage, a young woman grieving for her father, a man's man on the brink of love, a clairvoyant 10-year-old. Each storyline is brought to life by the distinct narrative voices of each character that are interspersed throughout the book.

Nevertheless, more than the domestic tragedies that unfold, readers will probably gravitate towards the novella's structure. By that, I don't mean the description of Fallingwater (though they can be lovely). What's really highlighted in the novella is form. In its own medium, Liliane's Balcony is an experimentation in construction. Each snippet lasts no more than two pages as we jump from one character's lament of her romantic past, to a child's inner monologue, to quotes by Frank Lloyd Wright. In terms of genre, Parker is playing with the sentimental domestic novel, historical fiction, biography and the supernatural, to mention a few. Frank Lloyd Wright's own writing is incorporated as are love letters that the Kaufmann's sent to each other, blurring the line between archive and fiction.

Because Liliane's Balcony alternates from one narrative to the other, I felt myself forced to go back to certain flashes in order to piece together each character's story. (Is "flashes" the correct term? I'm using it anyway.) This is not necessarily a strike against the novella; in fact, I believe it encourages it. After all, there are certain streams of consciousness that drop off one page only to be retaken a chapter later. It requires an active reader and, as such, a reader that will also be the architect of all the narratives that are scattered between the pages.

Intellectually, I found this fascinating. Part of the joy I got from reading this novella was my own engagement with the work and the connections that my mind picked up. The language itself is a thing to savor, more impressionistic than objective, though not deprived of wit. Of an annoying coworker, one of the characters says, "She communicated in the subjunctive tense." Of another character's stance on the f-word, Parker writes, "...they should be used judiciously. Another word that should be used sparingly is love. But she fucked that up, didn't she?" It's a playful book, but a very heady one at that.

Does this mean that my pleasure was purely felt in the mind, instead of viscerally? Truth be told, it was. The emotional punches that the narratives offer can be weakened by all this experimentation. There were several times when I wanted to delve deeper into a character's moment or thoughts, only to be pulled away by another narrative that demanded my attention. As an intellectual exercise Liliane's Balcony was a sight to behold, but it left me unmoved. Much like Fallingwater, one can sense that there is something powerful coursing underneath the foundations of its structure. The reader just isn't given a chance to really experience it.

Image courtesy of the Rose Metal Press website.

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