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The Windmill    by Stephanie Gertler order for
by Stephanie Gertler
Order:  USA  Can
Dutton, 2004 (2004)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Windmill is the story of two people, damaged by life. Though their individual tragedies brought Livi and Carl together, to marry and raise a family, neither has ever dealt with the past. Now, in mid-life, a serendipitous event breaks their stasis, and each is forced to examine what they have avoided, and to undergo a transformation.

Stephanie Gertler's prose quickly creates an intimacy with the reader, as when her protagonist Olivia shares with us the fact that when she feels cornered she transports herself elsewhere, for example by recalling the 'garbage soup' she and her sister Nina made as children. That brief sketch of a reaction quickly makes Livi real to us. The reason Livi feels cornered is that her husband's secretary has just asked her where he is. Professor Carl Larkin didn't show up for work. Has something happened to him? Has he left her? The reader wonders along with Olivia.

It turns out that the 'profoundly introspective' Carl is a man with secrets (he himself tells us that 'Words unsaid were my problem'), who has armored himself in science against the time he 'crossed a line' in his youth. Finding a note from Carl that is more disturbing than reassuring, Livi wonders what sent him away. Remembering past trauma in her own life, she too leaves to spend a few days with her parents. We learn how Livi lost the love of her life suddenly, as a young bride in New York, and live with her through the devastation that experience brought her, despite the anxious, loving support of her parents and sister.

The novel alternates between Olivia's and Carl's point of view, each gradually adding to the reader's understanding of what led them to this point. The mystery - what propelled Carl on his journey - engages our interest and drives the story. The caring in Livi's family is heartwarming, as they all come together to support whoever needs it, recently both her father and mother - the former for his compromised mental state, and the latter for the daily grind of coping with it. We learn about the strength that mothers can give their daughters as Margaret shares with Livi her own wartime grief, and counsels her despairing daughter that 'Hearts are big enough for more than one person'.

Events build up to a joyous multi-generational Thanksgiving feast (complete with 'candied yams with bourbon' and 'Southern cornbread and oyster dressing'!) Livi concludes that 'life is filled with detours that lead to possibilities and, sometimes, even miracles.' The Windmill is a beautiful tale that portrays, across all the seasons of life, how impenetrable we can be to each other, no matter how intimate, and how important it is to those around us that we deal with our demons.

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