Skylark by Ruthie Morgan

four stars

An intoxicating blend of exuberance and tragedy, luxury and hardship, adoration and resentment, liberation and imprisonment, sex and longing, Skylark charts protagonist Billie May Skylark’s ascent into womanhood against her passionate relationship with lover and husband Evan. Ruthie Morgan’s first work of fiction, this accomplished novel pairs the modest Kansan heroine with the devastatingly handsome, brilliant, and troubled Irish artist/architect, and thoughtfully examines the complex dynamics of their intense relationship over the course of several years. Narrated largely by Billie herself, the novel whisks us from bustling London into a romantic adventure to enchanting Paris, homey Ireland, meditative Scotland, and the paradisiac tropics. Looking unflinchingly at the ups and downs of love and family life, the novel metes out pleasure and pain in equal measure in a thoroughly delicious tale of a strong woman’s voyage into love, loss, and redemption.

Rich with both a spiritual beauty and a human ugliness, Morgan’s novel is always lovely. The well-observed dynamics allow for a wide breadth of emotion, captivation, tearjerkiness, and edge-of-your-seat tension. The darker depictions of obsession, addiction, and depression ring true and bring a depth to the narrative without bogging it down with too much gloominess. While it doesn’t offer any particularly fresh perspective, the insight it provides on so many aspects of life – from birth to death – is formidable and adds flourishes of poignancy. Much of this is thanks to the way that Morgan adeptly taps into the elemental powers of her imagery and symbolism. The metaphor of birds and wings – of freedom and flight – is a particularly strong one; if a bit insistent and heavy handed at times, it always feels fitting and honestly inspired. There is a wealth of thematic resonance in Billie’s journeys, and a soulful power in Billie’s observations and the multifarious, intriguing milieus in which she alights. The novel is both steamy and dreamy, and Morgan’s writing is suitably sultry and lush. The eloquently conversational and thoughtful tone engages us directly; it is warm, fun, and exciting. There are moments, however, when the voice can be a bit awkwardly acrobatic and heavy – the narration becomes stilted and situations feel contrived or underwhelming beneath the indulgence of the language and the luxury of Billie’s romantic life experienced vicariously. There are times, too, when the storytelling could benefit from a touch of nuance or a more knowing tone when dealing with matters that the reader may already understand a bit better than the characters. On the other hand, background characters can really want for detail; their plot threads often feel ignored and could be enhanced with the sacrifice of some of the repetitive passages that crop up as Billie or Evan wander through some of the same musings anew. Billie is just so earnest and her voice is so real, we can’t help but want to experience her world, her past, and especially her friendships even more deeply and more intensely than we are ever able to. However, Skylark remains a formidable and well-executed undertaking, generous in scope and emotion. While it may be a tad clichéd, it hardly ever feels dull. As a first work of fiction, Skylark is knockout-wonderful and a terrific promise for what Morgan can deliver.

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