At the beginning of Alice Hoffman’s novel Blue Diary is one of the most beautiful and protracted love scenes I’ve ever read. I’m not talking about sex, really, though that is included. I’m talking about a depiction of romantic, passionate love between a couple that’s been married for thirteen years. Besides pleasure, the scene also contains the seeds of trouble to come.
The skill that writer Alice Hoffman shows in her construction of this scene and all of the chapters of Blue Diary can be studied by other writers as a lesson in scene design-besides being a pleasure to read.
I’ll quote the first sentence of the first chapter, entitled “The Hanged Man”:
“It’s the last Monday of the month, a brutally gorgeous morning brimming with blue air and the sweet scent of honeysuckle, which grows wild in the woods beyond Front Street, when Ethan Ford fails to show up for work.”
It’s the end of May in a small town in Massachusetts, a day not just gorgeous but “brutally” gorgeous.
When I read that word, it jumped out at me. First I thought yes, sometimes a spring or early summer day can be so beautiful it’s an assault on the senses and the mind.
But after I’d finished the chapter, I realized there was another purpose to the use of the word; it set the tone for this day, and this story. It’s called foreshadowing, and Alice Hoffman is good at it. She does it carefully, clearly but not too obviously.
Ethan Ford stays home from work because he is still madly in love with Jorie, his wife of thirteen years, who stands at the kitchen window entranced by the beauty unfolding outside.
Ethan surprises her with his passion, and they go back to the bedroom. Their son is at school, on this first day of the last week of sixth grade. And Jorie is as much in love with her husband as she was the first night, and as he is with her.
They leave the windows open, the early summer sounds and fragrances a perfect backdrop to their love.
In between descriptions, the book’s narrator tells us how reliable and beloved Ethan Ford is, not just to his wife Jorie, but to the whole town. He’s a skilled carpenter and a volunteer fireman who has more than once risked his life to save people’s homes, people’s children.
Hoffman weaves these things together so well: the perfect weather-blue sky and sunlight and sweet-smelling lilies in the background; Ethan and Jorie’s passionate love for each other; and, also at great length, Ethan’s strength of character, so well known to the whole community. It’s not hyperbole to say that everyone loves Ethan Ford.
Yet there are hints, amid this surfeit of beauty and perfection:
“Later, Jorie will wonder if she hadn’t asked for sorrow on this heavenly day.”
And then the knock on the door.
The beautiful writing, the skillful pacing and well-measured suspense continue into the rest of the book. I haven’t yet finished Alice Hoffman’s Blue Diary. In fact I don’t know the meaning of that title yet. Although I’m not anxious for the book to end, I’m reading it as often and as fast as I can; it’s that good. I think it’s especially appealing to women, because of its themes of love and emotions and relationships.
I’m just glad to know that novelist Alice Hoffman has written many other novels. When I finish Blue Diary, I look forward to reading more of her work.
Source: Alice Hoffman, Blue Diary. Paperback edition, NY: Berkley Books, 2001.