A review of Morning Light by Holland Kane

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Morning Light
by Holland Kane
Rumor House Books
ISBN: 978-0985829339, March 20, 2013, 446 pages

Morning Light is about a boy’s first love. It begins:

In the spring of the year that Emily’s husband told her his religion barred him from sleeping with her unless she quit using birth control, the crocuses and hyacinths had already bloomed and I was living in a house in Brooklyn.”

This beginning presents two key issues of the novel. “I” is David, now a grown man and a successful theatre director and playwright, looking back at the spring when he was a high school student just under 18 and fascinated by his 24 year old guardian, Emily, a married dancer/choreographer.

Author Holland Kane employs the device of discovered journals to show what Emily thought and felt during that pivotal spring and summer. In this case, the novels aren’t “discovered” by David, but are presented to him by Emily herself. After twenty years with no contact, Emily reappears unexpectedly in his life during intermission at a Seattle theatre where he is directing. She congratulates him, gives him her journals, then disappears again.

A journal is one way of presenting the heart and mind of a key character whom the narrator does not fully understand. Another way is to present alternating chapters or sections from the points of view of the important characters. In Morning Light, the adult David reports Emily’s emotions from that memorable summer of their youth. It is more effective when the author shows those emotions being played out.

The passages David quotes from her journals are in amazingly good English, considering that Emily was raised in Lithuania and left school in her teens.

Both Emily and David have been through many ups and downs in their short lives. Emily was an illegal immigrant brought into the U.S. for domestic service, until she got to know Sara, an artist, who hired a lawyer to legalize her status. We learn eventually that for a period of time in the past, Emily was the mistress of the wealthy businessman Jay Bradbury. She left Jay for Rick, a man nearer her own age, who married her but has rigid ideas about what constitutes a proper Roman Catholic marriage. Although Emily is a good enough dancer to be invited to perform at prestigious Jacob’s Pillow, Rick shows little interest in her career. When the story opens, Rick’s career has collapsed, and Emily is dependent on grants from Jay’s foundation to pursue her dancing. She and David also work at a cafe part-time.

David, too is going through a hard time. Having Emily in his home after his mother, Sara, dies of breast cancer provides him with security and companionship, as his father is out of the picture. His future college education hinges on whether or not Emily can sell his mother’s art. Though Jewish, he attends a Catholic high school. (His fees have been waived on account of his maternal grandfather’s assistance to the school.) Talented in theatre arts, David hates the censorship his school imposes on him. Dr. Wilson, a psychologist, member of the school’s governing committee and part-time teacher, tries to convert David to Roman Catholicism.

Rick, the third person in the triangle, is a bundle of negative qualities. He is rigid in his religious beliefs, he swears a lot, believes in success mantras, behaves in a controlling way towards Emily, and takes no interest in her passion for dance. He professes to love her but is prepared to deny himself her favours in order to impose his beliefs. He is insecure about her friendship with Sara even after Sara’s death. Although in the end, David doesn’t consider him to be the villain of the piece, many readers will.

The element that I found least convincing – Warning! Spoiler Alert! – is Emily’s behaviour after she finds herself accidentally pregnant by someone other than Rick. Given her commitment to dance; her difficult relationship with Rick; her disagreement with his religious views, plus the incapability of the man responsible to take on a paternal role, I wondered why she continued the pregnancy. If she did because of her love for the man responsible, then the honourable, sensible course of action would be to break up with Rick. Although she is dependent on him financially, she at least has Sara and David’s roof over her head, a part-time job and some grant money. Another course of action, dishonourable but frequently practised, would be to let Rick think he is the father, that she conceived before his no-sex policy began.

Instead, Emily tells Rick he’s not the father but won’t say who is. She also expects Rick to love the future child as his own, and to support them both. There is a certain satisfaction in seeing Rick “hoist with his own petar” (to quote Hamlet), forced into the role of Joseph, but even so, Emily’s expectations of him seem naive, contrived and obviously a recipe for disaster. Although Rick tries to take the high moral road and stand by her, he is seething with rage, which erupts at predictable intervals.

Also implausible is the entanglement of Rick and Emily with Jay Bradbury and his wife, Page. Rick is jealous of Emily’s earlier relationship with Jay, and believes, rightly, that Jay is still interested in her. Why, then, would he seek a job requiring frequent contact with Jay? Surely in New York City he could have found work with another company? Likewise, in a city with millions of people, why do Rick and Emily socialize almost exclusively with the uncongenial Jay and Page? The answer to both questions: For the sake of the plot.

Author Holland Kane brings all the conflicting forces and issues together in a dramatic, tragic climax. In the denouement, he has David quote Schopenhauer’s assertion that “Sexual attraction is a diabolical invention for the propagation of the race…ready relentlessly to destroy personal happiness in order to carry out its ends.” Perhaps the problem lies, not in sex, but in unrealistic people.

Ruth Latta’s latest novel, The Songcatcher and Me (2013) is available from baico@bellnet.ca