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The Language of Light    by Meg Waite Clayton order for
Language of Light
by Meg Waite Clayton
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2011 (2003)
Hardcover, Softcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Language of Light (first published in 2003 and modified slightly in this new softover release), is the first novel of Meg Waite Clayton, bestselling author of The Wednesday Sisters and The Four Ms. Bradwells. It was an impressive debut. In it, the author portrays a young widow and mother of two, Nelly Grace. She is a talented photographer, but lacks faith in her own abilities, overshadowed by a famous father.

The story opens after the death of Nelly's renowned photojounalist father, Pat Sullivan, when she braces herself to do something he had asked of her, to burn all the photographs he had kept locked in a special box he took everywhere with him. She tries 'to imagine why my father kept these phtographs only for himself.' One of them is of a young Emma Crofton.

The author then takes readers back in time to when the recently widowed Nelly first met sixty-nine year old Emma. Nelly had just moved into 'a simple stone house my great-grandfather had built on a hundred acres of horse country ninety years before', along with her small sons, eight-year-old Ned and six-year-old Charlie, and their golden retriever Boomer. She still grieves over the accidental death of her husband Wesley, a pediatric surgeon, soon after they had a serious argument.

Emma, who lives in the neighborhood, brings peach jam and soon pulls Nelly, willy-nilly, into community events. Willa, a close neighbor with small children, also befriends Nelly, but there is tension between Emma and Willa. Emma has never been fully accepted into the community, her war hero husband Davis having married her in World War II England. Emma has a son Dac, a horse trainer and Vietnam veteran, scarred by his own wartime experiences and by the loss of his Vietnamese wife Mai.

An attraction grows between Nelly and Dac. Oddly, though Emma becomes a good friend to Nelly and encourages her to develop her photographic talent, she clearly does not want her son to become too close to her young friend. Why?

Nelly, who has always had a passion for photography, has always believed that her father was unimpressed by her work. And she deeply resented his absences, working abroad, during her childhood. Just before her husband's death, she and Wesley fought over her desire to pursue a photojournalism career. Now she is reluctant to even pick up her camera, but Emma pushes her to do so and finds her subjects, letting Nelly into a secret part of her own life. And gradually Nelly learns how ruthless Emma can be.

Though I think the author has matured in her writing (as exemplified in the extraordinary The Four Ms. Bradwells) since this first novel, it is still an excellent one, portraying multifaceted, strong willed women and starring a young woman who badly wants to follow her dream, but is held back by lack of confidence and her personal responsibilities. Though the author leaves a fair amount of ambiguity for the reader to mull over, she points out in The Language of Light how much we miss when we try to understand and know each other, even - or perhaps especially - the people we love the most.

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