John Casey’s 1989 National Book Award winner, Spartina, depicted a tightly knit Rhode Island community steeped in the sea—its financial and emotional support system. Compass Rose, his highly anticipated follow-up novel, revisits that insular community, picking up just where Spartina left off.
Elsie Buttrick, who was engaged in a passionate affair with Dick Pierce, the quiet, stoic fisherman, has just given birth to their daughter, Rose, as the novel opens. Dick is something of an enigma, but—despite his transgressions—he is fiercely loyal to his wife, May, and their sons Charlie and Tom. May Pierce is certainly admirable, yet nevertheless quixotic, in her surprising decision to welcome Rose so vigorously into their family—thus openly acknowledging Dick’s affair and resulting offspring to their decidedly provincial neighbors. Mary Scanlon serves for years as Rose’s nanny, becoming almost too attached to the beautiful, talented child as she transforms into a moody adolescent. And playing a significant role in Elsie’s life is her mentor, Miss Perry, who taught Elsie both Latin and a love for the environment, and to whom Elsie is increasingly devoted.
Casey brings his large cast of characters to life by means of interior monologues, allowing the reader to be privy to the inner thoughts that both precede and follow their actions. He is especially adept at exploring female relationships, including that of Rose and Elsie as Rose enters adolescence and they become “locked in their growing apart.” As Rose matures, each of the novel’s disparate characters is determined to nurture her, insulating her from the often cruel whisperings of a small town. But Rose is not blind to the world around her; as she cannily tells Elsie, “Face it, Mom—we live in a tiny ecosystem.” It is an ecosystem that Casey so obviously loves, his latest novel encapsulated in the words of Miss Perry, who as she is dying sums up her life as “a love affair with this small piece of rock-strewn woods and ponds, and the people who truly live in it.”