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August 4, 2010

New Books: Three Ladies Beside the Sea

I’ve previously mentioned the amazing New York Review Children’s Collection; most of its little-known classics I’ve previously encountered have been chapter books. But the company’s latest reissue is a 1969 picture book, in rhyming couplets. Oh, did I mention that the illustrations are by Edward Gorey?

Both my wife and I have long been big Gorey fans—in fact, I think one of my first birthday gifts to her was a copy of Amphigorey Also. And as I've mentioned before, our older son, Dash, is a big fan of all things spooky, so we gave him his first introduction to Gorey’s work (that same book) early, when he was four. Things were going fine—he loved the macabre tone and the style and humor of the artwork—until, halfway through “The Blue Aspic,” I suddenly remembered how it ends: With the haughty opera star stabbed to death by her longtime anonymous admirer/stalker. (The panel informs us of this with Gorey’s usual calm equanimity.)

So it was with particular excitement that I picked up Three Ladies Beside the Sea. There was no guarantee that a similar surprise didn’t await within, but the slim volume, written by Rhoda Levine, didn’t have that look. That impression was correct—this book is aimed at fairly young children (though its charm and beauty will appeal to older ones too), and there’s nothing more shocking in it than a woman who often spends hours up in a tree.

The story, as the title suggests, is of three elegant (this is Gorey, after all) women who live in neighboring houses by the ocean. Edith is happy and bubbly; Catherine is quiet but positive; Alice is pensive and distant. The three are friends, and even occasionally meet on the beach to play chamber music together. So Edith and Catherine are a bit worried about Alice’s habit of spending long hours in a tree, through all nature of weather, gazing at the sky as if searching for something.

When they ask her about it, she tells them that she once encountered a bird whose plumage was so lovely and whose song was so beautiful that she’s been floating ever since. Now she’s compelled to watch the skies for its return, as only hearing its song again can return her to the ground. After taking a moment to process this, the other two come up with some suggestions that might keep their friend out of the tree, with mixed results. (I won’t give away the ending, except to say it’s a happy one.)

It’s all charmingly told by Levine in short quatrains of well-crafted, unforced poetry that’s perfect for young readers. And then there are the illustrations, whose ornate gorgeousness will be no surprise to anyone familiar with Gorey’s work. Still, the dazzling quality of his art never gets old for me. (Nor, apparently, to my two-year-old, who has claimed Three Ladies Beside the Sea as part of his bedtime-reading canon—every night.)

In sum, it’s yet another gem to add to the set the New York Review Children’s Collection has already accumulated.

[Cover image courtesy of the New York Review Children’s Collection.]

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