The Eyes of the Father (Book Review)
Author: Daniels, Lucy
Reviewed By: Laurie Wilson, PhD, Vol. XXVII, 1 (Winter 2007, pp. 70-71
Lucy Daniels is a gifted novelist with a psychological ear and mind for tracking the unconscious. Or is she really a psychologist with a novelist’s gift for capturing character and weaving vivid and fascinatingly complex plot lines? Does it matter which identity prevails? In fact the author is both a licensed clinical psychologist and an extraordinarily gifted writer. With every page the reader is engaged in a depth psychological adventure so movingly written the reader can barely put down the book. Two stories unfold: about a young talented artist, Camilla “Lily” Price, and Grace Babcock, an independent-minded seventy-something—Lily’s sexy landlady and distant relative. Daniels deftly weaves their narratives together intertwining them as they draw closer to each other.
The main character, Lily, is the daughter of a mixed race couple. A rich white boy who is a gifted jazz pianist rebelling against his family’s staid values meets Marion, an attractive black girl from a conservative family—a preacher’s daughter at her most revolutionary moment. The girl is musical, and she sings well. The two are instantly drawn together and head off to Los Angeles without looking back. Once there, they marry, make music together and have a daughter, Camilla Price.
Lily, as her adored and adoring father calls her, has her father’s red hair and blue eyes (, the eyes of the father). But she has her mother’s black skin and when her charismatic cocaine-using father dies in a car accident when she is five, her charmed life quickly deteriorates. Without her free-thinking husband’s support and encouragement, Marion’s musical ability seems to dry up and she is forced to take her daughter and return to her family in Millboro—a town somewhere in the South. Marion’s prissy preacher father, Reverend Roger Tower, rules the family as well as much of the local black community with an iron and punitive superego. Marion, the shimmering vibrant singer, becomes a ghost of her former rebellious self and reverts to being a completely compliant servant in the family living on their charity and forbearance.
Having landed in the home of her ancestors—her maternal great grandparents were slaves in or near Millboro—Lily slowly works her way out of the repressed and repressing atmosphere through her multiple talents and the vivid recollections of her freedom-loving father whose eyes look back at her every time she sees herself in the mirror. Like her father, she is a gifted pianist, a talent her grandfather is glad to exploit when she plays the organ in his church. He has no similar tolerance for her musical ability when she plays at The Purple Onion, a popular club in town where Lily can more freely exercise her talent and bring her identification with her father to new life.
Lily’s unfolding story of growing up in Millboro carries the reader into life of the black community in a somewhat integrated southern town. Through Lily’s painful discoveries we learn both about her mealy-mouthed grandfather and his flock of compliant parishioners and relatives and about how an unconventional and gifted person can and must find her way out of the confining narrowness of her family’s limited expectations for her. When Lily discovers that she has additional talents as a visual artist, even greater than her musical gifts, she begins to find her way.
In the course of the narrative, the reader meets Lily’s inner life in italics. A caged yellow canary is the author’s principal metaphor for Lily’s cramped creativity as well as her hostile feelings toward her family or lover. When first invented the canary was “little and lonely looking, at first, his beady eyes fixed directly on Lily, staring her down from between the bars of that big old fashioned cage.” (p. 1) When complimented by her mother who presses her to play at church on the Sunday of the weekend of her first really big success in the art world, we immediately hear how Lily’s canary self responds:
Like an actor to a cue, that bird starts to swell even before the last word leaves Mama’s mouth. In seconds it puffs up so large that the bars of the once-too-big cage rumple its feathers and collapse its feet. Next the cage begins to squeeze tighter and tighter like a round grill determined to make canary juice, until the bars themselves are no longer visible because of being fluffed over by the mangled bird’s yellow feathers. (p. 1)
The eloquent metaphor for the gifted girl’s narcissism is handled with such acerbic wit and wily imagination we subliminally get the author’s knowledge of how mixed the burden of talent can be—squeezing the gifted one into making canary juice while fluffing with pride over every accomplishment and compliment.
Grace Babcock is one of the few relatives Lily can bear, and when her own living situation with prissy roommates has tried her patience once too often, she accepts Grace’s offer of a rented room. Grace has her own motives for reaching out to Lily and as the plot unfolds we gradually learn about her touching history. Slim, elegant, lithe and sinuous, Grace has more than the usual number of admiring men friends who regularly visit the 71-year-old widow. Going every so often to Reverend Tower’s church keeps Grace just within the social circle of her family—most of whom she rather dislikes but tolerates. Her unconventional nature, along with her steadfast admiration, gradually wins Lily’s confidence and the two women become friends as well as landlady and longtime tenant. Both women need a supportive family, which they clearly never had. And both women need a trusted witness to their sorrows and triumphs. Daniels expertly introduces their doubts about each other and the gradual thawing of Lily’s reserve.
All the characters in this moving novel are deftly drawn. Chauncey Bledsoe, the red-haired architect from Scotland and colleague of Lily’s at the college where they both teach, is Lily’s lover and insistent mentor in the art world. The yellow canary speaks loudly and persistently when Chauncey is around. As the novel begins, Chauncey is Lily’s most serious boyfriend so far. But her pleasure and comfort in the relationship are alternately marred and maddened by his arrogance and bossiness or thrilled by his unstinting admiration for her gifts. Daniels’ gift for capturing dialogue is astonishing and we become witness to Lily’s encounters with the Scotsman, her southern relatives, her artist and musician friends.
Tom Perkins, the owner and sole proprietor of the furniture store where Grace had worked is the love of the older woman’s life and Lily’s observation of their alliance opens the door to a possibility she had never encountered, much less imagined. Her memories of her parents loving relationship had faded in the light of her mother’s transformation into colorless compliance.
Despite the title, this book is as much a story about mothers and their daughters. We are invited to understand Lily’s relationship to Grace as the true passing of maternal wisdom on to the younger generation and to see Lily’s relationship to her own mother as an unwitting effort to achieve the independence and artistic maturity her mother only momentarily achieved.
Daniels brilliantly portrays Lily’s inner life as well as her main character’s awareness of her own conflicts and the range of ways she had and could respond to her feelings. The emotional intertwining of the two main protagonists comes together at a moment of emotional crisis for Lily. Chauncey has gone with Lily to a nearby city where an exhibition of her sculpture is met with triumphant success. Her simmering ambivalence toward Chauncey ebbs and flows during their trip but when they return to Millboro it erupts once again. Lily reluctantly accompanies Chauncey to a particularly noxious Sunday supper after her Grandfather’s church service. Observing what she perceives as an unholy alliance between her lover and hypocritical grandfather pushes her over the edge.
Lily continued watching the two men chat comfortably and recognized that their bond was “stronger than ever”:
Chauncey’s patronizing tone seemed to mix his Scottish accent with Grandfather’s holy drawl. The whole nature of this conversation made it clear that the brotherhood between Chauncey and Grandfather couldn’t be thicker… At that point the hurt and mad in her body came together so strong that Lily could no longer stand it. The canary in the cage confronts her eye-to-eye. She sees it begin to swell. But as the cage’s grid eases tighter around the yellow feathers…Lily made herself stop and wait a few minutes while straining to determine whether the problem was really an outrageous alliance between Chauncey and Grandfather, or something in herself. The feeling that gripped her was, like this morning’s a combination of hurt and ripped-off, rage over cruel unfairness. But she was not going to ignore it… Lily’s effort to be reasonable only fanned her outrage. Finally the continuing conversation between Chauncey and Grandfather but so much fire in her heart and sour in her mouth that she stood up and walked out, determined to march all the way home without saying goodbye to anybody. (p. 91-92)
When Lily finally arrives at Grace’s home she is still enraged at Chauncey’s most recent betrayal of her personhood. Instead of being ignored she is met by unaccustomed support. Grace comments:
“Lily, I am so proud of you! I want you to come back when you have more time and tell me about each and every piece. Will you do that soon?” Lily’s drained-away weakness had faded by then, leaving her oddly tempted to ask Grace for comfort. Nor, strangely, did Tom’s being there with his arm around Grace seem to matter any more. In fact, a crazy sense of peace filled the room, as if the fury and distress Lily had struggled with all day could somehow be soothed by these people. “Sure,” she answered Grace. “I’d like to tell you all about it, but this afternoon I need to work.” Then, still looking directly at first one and then the other and taking a deep breath, she added, “Today I need to work off a mad.”
“Mad about what?”
“Oh, just at Chauncey,” Lily startled herself by saying. She did not know Grace intimately enough to say this. But her tongue acted on its own. (pp. 135-6)
On almost every page of this book, Daniels’ deep understanding of human beings shines through. We read about Lily’s struggles to make sculpture that is vivid, moving, and the result of craft combined with spontaneous originality. We hear her thoughts and feelings when she plays the piano, her sense of herself as an artist with a career and a teacher. Daniels’ profound understanding of creativity vies with her ability to tell a story of human beings struggling to be fully and proudly themselves.
The author’s greatest gift to the reader is her exquisite representation of the burdens and joys of creativity. Early on we are made aware of Lily’s dilemma, which stemmed from her childhood experience.
From the start—probably as early as Daddy’s nightclub playing and their moon watching—Lily had known that feeling special was what she most needed in life. But growing up in Millboro continually threatened this perspective… (p. 97)
Mastering the piano was so wonderful compared to the drabness of the rest of their life that it seemed the one thing that could save them [her and Mama]—almost like a part of Daddy being with them, herself being a little like him. (p. 111)
Reading this extraordinary novel, we are with Lily and learn to see world she comes to see through the eyes of her father.
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