THE SHAPE I GAVE YOU by Martha Baillie (Knopf), 238 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Martha Baillie's old-school. She gravitates toward Europe when it comes to choosing her novels' settings. Her protagonist in The Shape I Gave You is a classical pianist, and the key event in the book is the receipt of a lengthy letter. Does anyone write letters any more?
But it's precisely this old-fashioned quality that gives Baillie's work its charm and elegance. Her stories have weight and value history.
In this, her third novel, Ulrike is about to leave her Berlin home to play a concert when she receives a letter from a family friend, Beatrice Mann, whom she barely knows. Beatrice, not yet recovered from the death of her teenaged daughter, is processing her grief by confessing to Ulrike her obsession with Ulrike's father, Gustave, who also died recently.
Ulrike isn't quite sure what to do with the letter. At first she discards it after reading only a few pages, but soon she can't resist it.
We read the letter with her in increments that alternate with scenes from her life, in particular her love relationship, about which she's weirdly ambivalent.
By the time we've finished the missive, Baillie's made a strong statement on the pain of grief and the unexpected way in which compassion can be sown.
She's also shown that with each new novel her voice becomes stronger.