Margaret Bradham Thornton’s first novel, Charleston, is aptly named. The story of a young high society woman who returns home to Charleston for her stepsister’s début and finds herself caught up in an old romance, Charleston is certainly a love story — but it may be that it’s more the love story between Thornton and the Holy City than it is between her two main characters, Eliza Poinsett and Henry Heyward.
Recognize those last names? Well, good — you’re supposed to. And you’re also supposed to recognize the last names of about 10 or 15 other characters, marginal though they may be, like Mrs. Middleton (Middleton Place plantation), Charles Lowndes (Lowndes Grove plantation), and Mrs. Vanderhorst (Vanderhorst Street), not to mention countless places and institutions like Ashley Hall, the Sword Gate House, and the Nathaniel Russell House.
This, unfortunately, is the general problem with Charleston. Presumably for the sake of verisimilitude, not to mention attracting the type of vacationing reader who gets a little thrill from reading about places she’s visited (and no disrespect to her — we all enjoy that feeling now and then), Thornton’s writing is clogged with references to very rich people, whether it’s the people themselves, the plantations and mansions they inhabit, or the landmarks they walk by on their way to the Yacht Club. The worst of these is the Slave Market — the name’s bad enough if you know what it really is, but you can imagine someone who’s never visited the city reading that term and being thrown for a racist, secessionist loop.
When you can wade through all the status markers, the story is fairly decent. When the novel opens, Eliza is an art historian living in London and about to head home to Charleston for the aforementioned débutante ball. She’s got a cushy, intellectualized life with a fancy fellowship and swanky boyfriend that she isn’t sure she loves. She runs into her old flame, Henry, at a wedding in England soon before she leaves and when she sees him in Charleston, the flame is rekindled. There are some complications, of course — Henry has a son that he had with a woman he cheated on Eliza with years before, and Eliza has an offer of a prestigious fellowship that she’ll have to turn down if she chooses Henry — but Eliza has enough other concerns to deal with that it keeps the plot from becoming entirely cliché.
The writing in most of the book is just short of stilted, although it has some fine moments. The first page is rather promising, with a subtle opening sentence: “A simple gesture, a man’s hand on a woman’s shoulder.” Thornton is a scholar — she edited Tennessee Williams’ Notebooks, a collection of his letters that won several awards — as well as a Charleston native and Princeton graduate (just like her main character) and it shows in her characters, most of whom speak like either pompous Ph.D. candidates or high society ladies from about 60 years ago.
And that is the real problem with Charleston. No one can blame Thornton for writing about the people and life she knows (in 1997, she and her husband paid $3 million for 14 Legare St., a.k.a. the Pineapple Gates House), but if she’s choosing as her subjects the kind of people that are already easy to ridicule — those poor former slaveholding families who, god forbid, have to open their plantations to the public — then she really needs to do a solid job of drawing us into their lives. Sadly, that just isn’t the case.