Kathleen Valentine’s “The Old Mermaid’s Tale” is an elegantly crafted coming of age story about the healing powers of unconditional love. It is the story of a beautiful young woman, Claire Wagner, who falls in love with the ideal of romanticized love even before she experiences love’s own joys and sorrows. Claire is first awakened to the breathtaking realities of pure sexual passion by Pio, a young Italian-American who yearns for the dangerous life of a seaman. Pio, literally, will become the first and last great passion of her life, serving as bookends to Claire’s journey of the heart. However, the crucible that transforms Claire from love-struck girl to full womanhood will not be Pio but rather her love affair with Baptiste, a mysterious and seductive Breton, a man of tragedy and well as captivating songs of love.
Claire’s pure and unselfish love for Baptiste heals his tormented soul and allows him to claim his destiny. In return, Baptiste’s age, wisdom and ability to nurture and cherish a woman will serve as that most ancient of all mariners’ navigational tools, the Northern Star. The knowledge that she is deeply loved by Baptiste creates within her an inner compass so strong that it will guide her safely home through the tumultuous seas of her own passions and doubts, delivering her into a charmed life that gives her a platform for all of her gifts, most especially her astonishing capacity to love unconditionally and with great purity of purpose. Claire and Baptiste are eternal soul mates who share a love so profound it eventually comes full circle in the fullness of time, giving harbor to others who, like Baptiste, are also in desperate need to recover from the vicissitudes of life. Such souls are in need of safe anchor as surely as any battered ship seeking port after sailing through storms able to sink whole fleets.
Claire Wagner was born into the innocence and security of an age long gone in American history; a period before Americans began to cannibalize their best and brightest through assassination in word and deed and send off to war their own progeny to be killed or damaged beyond repair in grandiose wars of no rational purpose. Like America, Claire Wagner came of age during the social chaos of the sixties. Also like America, Claire had within her the ability to love a dream and understand dreams should be preserved and that sometimes, in and of themselves, dreams alone may be enough. As a historian, I find no small measure of metaphor in the fact that Claire found a way to preserve her dreams and justify her very existence in the arms of an older, wiser man – a man who came from a culture much more experienced than her own. America has always had a hard time looking backward to history for guidance, insisting instead on making its own mistakes. Claire was smart enough to do it differently.
Valentine sets the heart and soul of “The Old Mermaid’s Tale” in a small fishing town on one of the Great Lakes, successfully using the cultural richness of the locale and its locals as the warp and woof of her great love story. The effect is mesmerizing, entertaining, and at times enlightening. This very talented author displays an in-depth understanding and compassion for the lives of the brave men and women who define their existence according to the vagaries of mighty lakes and oceans and an ever present danger that most people will never know and can hardly imagine. The story is rich in folklore and the superstitions of seamen but most compelling when it reminds us about the fragility of our existence. Clearly to Valentine and her marvelously drawn characters there are many ways a person can die but being dead to love is quite possibly a worse death than being lost at sea.
Kathleen Valentine is a very gifted writer. She captures the prosaic as well as the heavenly but it is in the heavenly – in the sheer beauty of her sometimes astonishingly lush prose – that I was swept off my feet. Every great story leaves the reader with an indelible impression or a feeling, an idea that can often be captured in an artfully chosen word or clever turn of a phrase. Some stories leave the reader “breathless,” or “stunned” or “thrilled.” Kathleen Valentine’s “The Old Mermaid’s Tale” left me feeling simply “wonderful,” as if I had been rendered nearly senseless by an over indulgence of fine chocolate, heady wine, hot therapeutic waters, and the sweet caresses of an understanding and satisfying lover.
I’m not sure what else needs to be said with the possible exception that Kathleen Valentine proves being an independent author and being an extraordinary talent are not mutually exclusive terms. Kathleen’s writing elevates the bar for all those who want to independently publish. She has also cast adrift the myth that indies are not the equal of those who are agented or traditionally published. Everyone who wants to write or loves to read can learn much from Valentine and “The Old Mermaid’s Tale.”
(Maureen Gill; author of "January Moon.")
(reviewed 19 days after purchase)