By Rebecca Rosenberg
Lake Union Publishing, 2018
I am at Jack London Square in Oakland, California, as I write this. Only its location as a terminus of the ferry to San Francisco reminds us now of London’s love of the sea and of nature. In this historical novel Rebecca Rosenberg reminds us of California in the early twentieth century – a growing, vibrant, place where there was room to build a new society among the redwoods and ranches.
Jack London was one of California’s most influential early writers, a best seller who pursued new ideas of socialism and sustainability while mortgaging himself to the hilt to become a land baron, collecting admirers, and drinking round the clock. He also had a wife who was his close collaborator. Yet Charmian, who was as bright, ambitious, as intellectually curious, and even wealthier than he in her own right, has been forgotten.
Beginning eight or so years into the marriage, the novel shows Charmian’s growing frustration with Jack’s waning desire for her, even as she does everything for him.
He says, “It’s the institution of marriage that strangles love, isn’t it?…over the years the face of your beloved becomes as familiar as your own.”
She says, “You take my visions and ideas and turn them into literature that will be praised and read by generations to come…I tell myself it’s enough to be part of your genius. But is it? Is it really?”
This classic interplay between writer and his female muse infuses the novel, whose tension gathers with Charmian’s increasing frustration. She’s a writer too, but because she’s a woman, is seen only as his wife and typist. In Rosenberg’s excellent portrayal, we are in Charmian’s head, unable to work a way out of her dilemma. Her constant attention to Jack’s needs becomes claustrophobic. Rosenberg cleverly uses the escape artist Houdini, a friend of Jack and Charmian London, as a metaphor as well as a key plot element to enable her to unlock the key to a wider world.
Rosenberg writes evocatively of the gorgeous natural environment of Glen Ellen, a place where vineyards now thrive, of Hawaii and of the cities of the East Coast on the brink of America’s involvement in World War I. But it is her insightful and compassionate understanding of the complex relationship between two brilliant people that really makes this novel stand out.