Rewriting a family's history
Kim Edwards' creative follow-up to 'The Memory Keeper's Daughter'
The resulting novel, The Lake of Dreams, is a seamless interplay of the two—part historical, epistolary novel and part modern-day quest story. “The two are deeply interwoven,” Edwards says during a call to her Kentucky home. “The past presses itself on the present . . . it became more forceful as I was writing it.”
“I think the landscape of everybody’s childhood really stays with them.”
When the novel opens, Lucy Jarrett is at a turning point in her life and has returned to Lake of Dreams, New York, from her recent home in Japan, after a decade-long absence. Back in the rambling old house of her childhood, she finds that she is still haunted by her father’s unresolved death in a fishing accident years earlier. She also learns that her brother, Blake, has gone into the family business and joined ranks with their uncle in a controversial project to develop the area’s pristine wetlands.
Meanwhile, Lucy also reconnects with her first love, Keegan Fall, a sensitive, thoughtful glass artist who still carries a torch for her after all these years. But one morning, everything changes when Lucy makes a curious discovery in a window seat of the house’s long-neglected cupola. There she unearths a cache of letters, ephemera linked to the suffrage movement and an heirloom tapestry bordered with interlocking spheres—an ancient symbol that, as Lucy soon learns, also appears in stained-glass windows crafted by a local artist almost a century earlier. Thus begins a journey that will force her to rewrite her family’s history—and her own.
Though Lucy’s life doesn’t directly mirror the author’s, there are some parallels. Edwards grew up in Skaneateles, in the Finger Lakes region of New York, and after completing her graduate work, she traveled to Asia with her husband, where they spent the next five years teaching. Later on, she enjoyed revisiting the upstate area and muses, “I think the landscape of everybody’s childhood really stays with them.” She also relished rediscovering the region’s history and its ties with the women’s suffrage movement. “It was really, really fun to see it through that lens,” Edwards recalls.
An associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky, Edwards has been on leave for the past two years to write The Lake of Dreams. After a whirlwind tour following the success of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, which has sold more than 4.5 million copies, she alighted in Kentucky seeking the solitude required to write. Her husband, former chair of the English department at the university and a carpenter in his previous life, built her a secluded home studio in which to work.
Edwards “wrote the book from the outside in,” she explains: “I told myself I had to write 1,000 words a day just to see where it took me.”
The story for The Lake of Dreams, however, had been germinating long before The Memory Keeper’s Daughter came into being, its images floating in the author’s mind like dust motes in the dappled light of a stained-glass window. Years ago, Edwards wrote a draft of a novel (her first) that had similar themes, like a concern for the land. Over the years, she returned to her discarded novel and came to understand it in a totally new way—an exercise that proved fruitful, because it was during this process that she found the voice for The Lake of Dreams. “For me, and many writers, that’s a crucial discovery,” Edwards says. If she had to identify the seed of the story, however it would be a stained-glass window. “I loved the metaphor of glass, as something that moves between states of being.”
It’s while standing before a series of these windows that Lucy experiences this revelation about her ancestor, Rose: “It was physical, almost, my desire to know who she was and how she had lived. . . . From this point in time, almost a hundred years later, the events of her life looked fixed, determined. And yet, in her brief notes I had recognized a restless passion that seemed familiar, mirroring my own seeking, my own questions.”
Fans of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees will find much to love in this novel, especially the way Edwards integrates arcane subject matter into a contemporary story. The character of Lucy, with her wanderlust and longing for self-knowledge, recalls literary heroes across time.
“I think of this book as kind of a quest story, and so the underlying structure of that, both seeking something in the world and undergoing some kind of internal change, too, is the structure that was in my mind when I was writing it,” Edwards says. “I did a lot of reading about myths, traditional and ancient quest stories along the way. One of the elements of a quest story is that the hero gets called back from whatever he or she is doing at the time, so it seemed to fit really beautifully with the wandering Lucy has done.” (Edwards even manages to work a chalice into the narrative.)
Not surprisingly, dreams also figure prominently in The Lake of Dreams. At different points in her career, Edwards says, she has been interested in theology and the works of Carl Jung—interests that clearly inform her fiction. The design that appears on the heirloom blanket Lucy discovers was inspired by the Chalice Well of Glastonbury—on which appears a sacred geometry that consists of two interlocking circles, called vesica piscis, or in more modern terminology, a Venn diagram. At her urging, the book’s designers incorporated the blanket’s border into each chapter heading.
Though parts of the book feel a touch treacly, Edwards writes well about familial relationships and the tenuous ties that bind us. One particular passage stands out in which Lucy, visiting an abandoned chapel, sits bathed in the ethereal light of stained-glass windows. This magical, meditative scene transports the reader, with Lucy, to a place like dreamtime, where the veil between the worlds—the seen and unseen—grows thin. It’s a place Edwards herself has come to know through the creative process. Of the act of writing, she says, “I would emerge from it feeling like I was still partially there. . . . The writing changes you. You leave as a different person. You never know what you’re going to discover.”