- Time and Memory
Laura C. Stevenson's Return in Kind is a delicately crafted novel that engages major questions of time such as death, memory, and learning to let go. Readers come to understand the secret hang-ups and predilections of five protagonists from multiple perspectives as each voice intertwines to form a grand arc. The novel centers on Joel Hendrickson, a lauded Renaissance scholar who loses his wife to cancer and inherits a farmhouse and sizable estate. As such, it is Letty's death and will which serves as the novel's driving force and illuminates a core thematic of Return in Kind: the importance of absence and the presence of spectral intentions.
When Joel inherits land he did not even know his wife owned, his questions surface in legion. How did she come by it? Why hadn't she mentioned it? Who lived on the property, and what was their history? How could he have been ignorant that "she cared for the place?" With the help of his friends, Joel tries to unbind the interlaced knots that comprise his inheritance, as well as the mysteries of his own being. The traumas that wrack his soul are in some way linked to the riddles of his marriage and the property. Letty's physical death, and the process of rebirth experienced by those whom survived her, reveals how the past must be dealt with in order to step lucidly into the future.
Stevenson is also the author of two young adult novels and two children's books. Like her previous work (except her books in the fantasy genre), Return in Kind takes place in Vermont, which possesses its own narrative of transformation. With the sensibility of a cultural historian, Stevenson describes a mountainous tableau in perpetual danger of being paved over by non-native industries. Furthermore, she shows how people change their habitats and how a place transforms its inhabitants. Individuals who work a particular piece of land grow roots that tap deep temporal strata and eventually realize, "The land that seemed so permanently itself was in fact a reflection of human history."
Return in Kind reveals how history is ever-present and that the full impact of an event can remain dormant for decades before it is fully realized. There are moments when, through a seemingly inconsequential action, characters experience a "Proustian journey back" into the past. The nostalgia can serve a purpose, though, like when Stevenson's characters learn to let regret slip away like a jettisoned burden. Of course, she does not suggest one can live completely free of regret. Indeed, it seems to be an integral part of the human condition. When Charlie (Charlotte) asks Ray, "you've got no regrets, right?"—he answers, "Not as many as I used to."
With a Ph.D. in Elizabethan history, it is obvious that Stevenson is erudite, though she keeps her characters and conflicts down to earth. While the novel focuses on the upper echelons of Vermont academia, these characters deal with trials of the heart. Joel, Charlie, Eleanor, and others investigate secrets of the past and, while often articulating expressions of higher thought, are stirred by deep currents of emotion. Through her understated prose, readers are brought up close to the vulnerabilities of each character and how their embarrassing shortcomings are necessary. Yet always, even during the most alienating situations, Stevenson pulls us in.
She provides a broad palette of colorful characterization, bringing to life complex protagonists that could be comfortable with the tomes of Virgil, Spenser, and Shakespeare while also being adept at training horses to canter and leap pick-up trucks. The college-bound Charlie is sometimes an insightful woman, sometimes child. She feeds her horse dripping handfuls of cola and has a "kind of perceptiveness and originality" the Ivy League overlooks "in favor of more pedestrian intelligence." The widowed Joel, a rather ineffectual intellectual, develops his construction skills and tears down a barn with Ray, his chainsaw toting elder, who teaches Joel the value of a brush hog and camaraderie over a cold...