Click here to read reviewer Heather Darcy's take on The World Before Her.
The sunlight glints off the canals of Venice in bright shifting geometries, lighting up parts of these characters' hearts that have, for many years, been hidden. Yet the light also reflects love and anger, grief and delight, shame and pride, even the petty jealousies and insecurities of two women
- one real and one fictional - separated by time but not necessarily by circumstance.
In 1880, Marian Evans (George Eliot) honeymoons in Venice with her new husband, John Cross, who is younger than Marian by almost twenty years. Now in her sixties, Marian's life has been wearied by the gossip and scandal concerning her long, happy union with George H. Lewes, a partnership that she regarded as marriage even though it involved social ostracism and could have no legal sanction because Lewes’s estranged wife was living.
Though Marian had hoped to achieve a measure of comfort with John Cross, the trip to Venice has done much to assuage her periods of severe depression. There is, however,
a weariness that seems to have clouded her temperament. Like the dense fog that lines the shores of this great city, Marian is plagued by fears that perhaps her shell and her connection to John is all but a pretense.
Marian knows that she's cared for and she's not alone, yet she's a woman in constant need of reassurance.
The ghosts of the past and even her own insecurities about her attractiveness to John always return to haunt her.
A century later, thirty-three-year-old Caroline Springhold arrives in Venice with her wealthy and influential husband, Malcolm, ostensibly for a holiday but also for Malcolm to pursue his investment opportunities regarding the restoration of the city's crumbling facades. For a decade, Caroline has been married to Malcolm, who only wanted to take care of her; but like Marian a hundred years earlier, Caroline is also disconsolate.
The first years of Caroline and Malcolm's marriage were marked with a "luxurious expansiveness," a shimmering exchange involving the material and the spiritual.
Lately this assumed grace has coarsened into arguments, and ithis trip back to Venice - the first for twenty-two years since she first came as a teenager with her parents - has unleashed a torrent of insecurities in Caroline regarding her feelings for her husband.
Through both Marian and Caroline's fractured memories – Marian and her life with George, and Caroline and her affair with Will, a young man she
knew before she was swept up by Malcolm's largesse - Deborah Weisgall's story is told.
The women have parallel struggles; both are artistic and passionate, yet they're bulldozed by shattered relationships - Marian with her brother Isaac, who never forgave her for living out of wedlock, and Caroline with her father, who died unexpectedly when she was just sixteen.
Steadily growing a shell against love, heartbreak and spoiled expectations, Marian ultimately believes she has at last found peace with John. It isn't until he unexpectedly jumps from their hotel balcony into the Grand Canal that she is forced into the pain of rejection, the memory of despair revived all bitter and fresh in her life.
Venice becomes a kaleidoscopic background to the lives of George Eliot and Caroline Springhold, Weisgall's prose imbued with gorgeous muscularity as she pounds us with some of the most exquisite imagery of a humid, misty Venice.
The city, always floating on water, seems to have a sensual magic and a "rotting impossibility" that gradually mocks Marian's dream of a wedding trip and her misconceptions of John's kindness.
Certainly, Marian's choices were absolutely outrageous for society in the 1880s. All her life she had been the subject of much speculation, the gossip surrounding her reflective of her own discomfort with the pain of marital transgression. Luckily, living in the 1980s, Caroline is left with far more options. It is not surprising that both women eventually rebel as they begin to grow and change and attempt to search for a new measure of security and hope, even ardor, in their respective worlds.