Most of Prudence’s past is shrouded with the shapes of events no longer distinct, or faded with the emotional color gone.
Prudence O’Connor is three weeks past her one hundred and first birthday when she receives a call from a stranger named Grace, whose grandfather Randall O’Connor, she believes, is Prudence’s long absent brother. Prudence and Randall’s Irish immigrant parents worked as servants for Louis C. Tiffany, artist and designer best known for his stained “Tiffany” glass. When her brother flees after hitting their drunk father, promising to write, they receive one letter that he is living with Charlie, a boy who had ‘got himself out of this hell hole’ for San Francisco. Prudence spends her days visiting her father on the job, in awe of the beautiful work all about the home, drawing pictures of all that delights her. Her passion endears her to a Lady, Mrs. Dorothy Burlingham whose fond memories of Prudence’s father gives her pause, for the father she knows, mean when with drink, seems nothing like the man she describes, one who kindly listens to a sad girl ‘prattle on’ about her woes.
The title, The Peacock Feast is based on an event that Tiffany hosted for ‘men of genius’; painters, publishers, architects, transported by private train from New York to Oyster Bay ‘to view the spring flowers on his estate’. Serving Peacock and suckling pig, Tiffany’s daughters followed by his grandchildren were part of the procession dressed in Grecian gowns. The eccentricities of the rich don’t stop there, after all he once dynamited the breakwater to prevent public access to his beach. Prudence remembers, though two years old at the time, watching from behind a pillar seeing Dorothy as part of the procession, miserable, unhappy. Also of Laurelton Hall she recalls her memory of Dorothy’s wedding to Robert Burlingham, as she watched lifted in her father’s arms. How could she have guessed that she would one day become daughter-in-law to invited guests, far above her own parent’s social class. With no children of her own, discovering that she has a grand-niece reveals all the mystery behind everything that happened in her brother’s life decades past when he left home for good at the tender age of fourteen, never to be seen again.
The story encompasses a massive chunk of time, and though both siblings did well for themselves, tragedy followed them. Strange that now, at her lives end, all of Prudence’s questions will finally be answered. Grace is a twin, she informs Prudence, her brother Garcia and she were left on their grandfather’s doorstep, their drug addicted father, Leo unable to be still long enough to care for his own children. At fifteen Leo ‘turned wild’, the year was 1963. He met Jacie, and fell in love hard, it isn’t long before she is pregnant. Their mother suffering her own mental health issues, never shows up to take her children in hand. With the help of housekeeper Angela, Randall has no option but to raise Leo’s children. Grace and Garcia learn their grandfather’s story of survival, including enduring the great depression. Too, Grace comes to unravel what happened to drive her once promising, bright father to self-destruction. That love can be suffocating, that fear can make you cling so hard that it can kill it, may well be the force that came between Leo and Randall.
Grace works as a hospice nurse, seeing the most humbling and heartbreaking losses people suffer due to illness, disease and age. Here she finds Prudence on the edge of death too, and it seems death is a close relative in her own family. Prudence regrets so much about her own life, having ‘done little harm,’ she has to admit she’s ‘done little good’ either. Once accused of extortion after her mother received payments from her father’s fall and death, it is a lucky thing with the ‘milk train’ coming to a stop that she has worked hard on her own steam. Thanks to the scholarship she earned, and the recommendation of her teacher provided at the School of Fine and Applied Art, she finds herself with a job offer. She begins to work as an assistant to one Harriet Masters, working more as a ‘personal shopper’ for rich ladies than designing beautiful enchanting creations. It is through this less than fulfilling job she meets Carlton, who makes the connection between her and Dorothy Burlingham, who was so fond of the gardener’s daughter at her family home that she delivered a watercolor to her, Prudence. The ‘refined man’ falls in love with her, Carlton her first lover. When she falls pregnant, he makes a demand of her, that will remain one of her biggest acts of cowardice ever.
Grace and Prudence have in common their unending love for their siblings.
The novel goes into Freud, beginning with Dorothy’s connection to the family, psychiatric hospitals, prison, open land, exposes the vast divide between social classes, but it’s the explosion on that beach so long ago, that Prudence witnessed, felt rock her, that echoes through time until secrets break free. Memory is a slippery eel, Prudence remembers more than most at her ripe old age, but there are shadows over one of the biggest incidents of her life, one she hasn’t been allowed to remember.
It is a heavy read, a story about how family embraces and breaks you. People that disappear sometimes have a stronger hold on you than what is present. Yes, read it.
Publication Date: February 5, 2019
Farrar, Straus and Giroux