A large part of me is glad that Tara Isabella Burton was not writing novels back when I was a teenager, because I would have made her books my entire life aesthetic.
Her three novels to date — Social Creature, The World Cannot Give, and now Here In Avalon — revolve around women who are voraciously hungry for large lives lived on their own terms but who feel trapped, and so lash out emotionally, heedless of whomever around them gets hurt. These women are never the main character: that honor goes to the other woman who is, in turn, most trapped in their orbits, loving them and envying them and supporting them and perhaps ultimately destroying them. Usually these central women belong to an in-group that the main characters are curious about before falling headlong into. There is also usually creepiness and crime and most of all a regret for all that was lost in the final pages.
For all that, none of Ms Burton’s books feel same-y. For example, I love Janice Hallett, but was a little baffled at the use of the exact same moralistic framing device in the last three books of hers I’ve read (not including The Twyford Code, which I plan to get to reading and reviewing here #soon.) Ms Burton might use similar base archetypes but all her characters are so unique in their circumstances — even when the books call back to each other — that her stories always feel like they’re exploring new facets of her focus subjects. If there are, arguably, only two stories in all the history of the world, then hers continue the time-honored tradition of telling us new, heart-searching things about ourselves while working from a very particular base framework.
Her latest novel Here In Avalon is a tale of two sisters whose Bohemian childhood in New York City forced them to grow up to be two very different people. Older Cecilia is the quintessential romantic, impractical and a slave to her sensibilities. A talented musician who yearns to complete her opera based on the King Arthur cycle, she carroms from one love affair to the next, traveling the world in search of bliss but heading home, dejected, to the sisters’ rent-controlled NYC apartment whenever the grand amour eludes her once again.
Younger Rose, on the other hand, abandoned her artistic dreams to learn how to code and design self-improvement apps. Now she works for a tech company and is engaged to a man whom she thinks is good and sensible, little realizing how she herself has romanticized Caleb as normal when really he’s a condescending know-it-all. God, I hated him. I once dated a guy like him but had the sense to say no when he wanted to get married. Anyway. Rose’s life philosophy is best encapsulated by this quotation:
[P]robably there was no such thing as true love, in New York or Maine or England or anywhere else, and the best that you could hope for was a minute or two of forgetting, and then a lifetime of remembering that there had been a time when you forgot, and then one day you stopped remembering and forgetting altogether.
Rose, as you can tell, believes in playing it safe, and being “normal”, and stifling passion in exchange for a comfortable existence, materially and emotionally.
Cecilia, ofc, is not like this, tho even she seems to have straightened up and begun to fly right after she returns home from her latest adventure: a brief marriage after an even briefer courtship. But she’s still troubled, and when her husband Paul comes chasing after her, decides to run away once more. Rose is exasperated by all these shenanigans, but when her sister remains missing amidst rumors of a cult snatching people away on the East River, she can’t help but worry that this disappearance is less voluntary than the others.
As Rose and Paul attempt to track down Cecilia, they learn of Avalon, a floating, magical cabaret that only appears to those seeking it. Is it really a seductive cult that kidnaps people for its own malevolent purposes? Or is it something entirely otherworldly?
By the end of this tale, Rose will have become, if not quite a romantic like Cecilia, at least someone open to the possibility of magic, someone who has not decided that everything is cut and dried and quantifiable:
Maybe she would spend the rest of her life running after the holy grail; maybe she, too would come home at defeated intervals, with hollow cheeks and hollow eyes and unwashed luggage, too stupid or too stubborn to admit that it didn’t exist at all.
Or maybe she would find it.
Yes, HiA is something of a modern spin on Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, but written in the kind of rapturous, breathless language that would have made that rector’s daughter squirm. Even so, Austen would have understood and likely enjoyed this spiritual successor to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the kind of old-fashioned Romance that’s so hard to find nowadays outside of the fantasy genre. This book is being marketed as a modern fairy tale, and while that isn’t quite correct, it’s not entirely wrong either. It is, I believe, the hardest to categorize of Ms Burton’s oeuvre, and quite possibly my favorite so far. She has so much to say about love and desire and belief (and also, at one crucial point, about money!) that it’s hard not to want to embrace her works in the same way that Cecilia embraces a life bigger than herself. If you’ve ever felt the same way, yet keep choosing wonder and romance in the face of the perils of failure, you’ll understand.
Here In Avalon by Tara Isabella Burton was published January 2 2024 by Simon & Schuster and is available from all good booksellers, including