Lives tinged with regret, love shadowed by loss—these are the fates of Alice Hoffman's characters. In her elegant, elegiac new novel, Skylight Confessions, longings are expressed in dreams and visions and embodied in ghostly apparitions. Cancer and despair kill, and the survivors are haunted by what remains.
The narrative begins with the death of 17-year-old Arlyn Singer's father, a ferryboat captain given to stories of people able to "sprout wings in the face of disaster." This mythic image frames the novel, which is filled with flightless birds and characters eager to take flight.
Reeling with grief as she stands on the front porch of her North Shore, Long Island home, Arlyn vows to link her life to the first man she encounters. Along comes a wandering Yale student, the dour John Moody. (To Hoffman, names signify.) Already, to John, Arlyn "looked like a ghost, someone he'd imagined, a woman made of moonlight and milk." Believing him to be her fate, she determinedly beds him, and then pursues him until they are husband and wife. Thus commences a generational saga, spanning about four decades, about missed connections, destiny, and the human yearning for immortality.
Arlyn and John, now an architect working for his father's firm, move to a fairy-tale house of glass in Connecticut called the Glass Slipper and designed by John's father. By this time, they have a son, Sam, who starts out merely silent and strange and descends into self-mutilation and drug addiction. John's impatience with Sam disenchants Arlyn, and she comes to feel that she has "wrongly stumbled into another woman's marriage, another woman's life." A second child, Blanca, is the product of a love affair between Arlyn and George Snow, a window washer turned pet-store owner. (Father and daughter are linked by names connoting whiteness.)
Eventually, a young woman, Meredith Weiss ("white" in German), who is scarred by her high school lover's suicide, wanders into the Moody family's orbit. Its gravity holds her. Having followed the tracks of a ghost that isn't even hers, she finds a measure of solace in caring for the Moody children.
Graced by Hoffman's luminous prose, Skylight Confessions also offers the enchantment of fairy-tale touches—from the pearl necklace whose colors change with the wearer's mood to the haunting of John Moody. They add luster to the emotional truths the novel explores, about loneliness and alienation—and how friendship and love can mutate into their opposites, and then, miraculously, return. In Connecticut, Arlyn becomes best friends with her neighbor, Cynthia Gallagher, albeit "friends as different as chalk and cheese." In time, as Cynthia flirts with John, Arlyn finds "everything about Cynthia…repellent." Still, Cynthia will be on hand to lend support when Arlyn becomes ill—and to become John's second wife.
All of these characters are entangled in a web of fate, though John—the skeptic among them—"thought fate was a muddled stew of half-beliefs and wishes and that people made their own destiny." There will be more tragedy, more revelations. But as the two Moody sisters—Cynthia and John also have a daughter—fight to heal their rifts and Blanca searches for Sam's son, Hoffman leaves us with hope that the next generation will do better.
Beyond its literary distinction, Skylight Confessions is an engrossing read. Like the souls of Hoffman's characters, who cling to those they love, her storytelling will hold you firmly in its grip.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She recently reviewed Where Have All the Flower Children Gone? for AARP The Magazine Online.