Violet Swan is an artist, a famous artist. At 93, museums and collectors around the world buy her paintings, while all but nothing is known about Violet herself. She lives a secluded life in the tiny Oregon coastal town of Nestucca Beach. She hopes to complete one last painting before telling her family of her diagnosis, but when an earthquake shakes her house and town, her plans are shaken up as well.
So begins Pale Morning Light with Violet Swan, Deborah Reed's new, completely absorbing novel. Violet Swan lives in the house she built with her husband Richard. She lives and works upstairs and her son Francisco and his wife Penny live downstairs. Francisco, called Frank by everyone but Violet, manages Violet's business affairs. Frank and Penny have been grinding away at the same low-level argument for decades. The earthquake may finally bring matters to a head between them.
In the meantime, their son Daniel arrives from Los Angeles. He wants to make a documentary of Violet's life while she's still around to tell her own story. She's put him off for years but is finally ready to share her secrets. Daniel also has a surprise of his own to spring on the family.
All this is just the set up for Reed's fabulously rich family drama. As the present-day story plays out, the story of Violet's past unfolds through her memories and then her interviews with Daniel. Violet had a hard life, starting with childhood tragedy in Georgia and including her solo trek to Oregon, sexual assault, manual labor, mental illness, and other trauma. She also found friendship and love along the way and taught herself how to paint, channeling her experiences into her art, where she found happiness and joy.
Reed's writing is lovely but not obtrusive. You can picture each character and scene, but she but lets the story do the heavy lifting. She packs a lot into 302 pages. None of the characters are all good or all bad, including Violet, who is admirable but not entirely lovable. The conflict between Frank and Penny, and some of Daniel's struggles, make sense only as the details of Violet's life become clear.
Pale Morning Light with Violet Swan is a wonderful book. It could have been twice as long and I would have enjoyed it twice as much – I didn't want it to end. This was the first book I read in 2021 and it may end up being my favorite book of the year.
Deborah Reed is the author of four other novels: The Days When Birds Come Back (reviewed here), Olivay, Things We Set On Fire, and Carry Yourself Back to Me (reviewed here). She also wrote two thrillers under the pen name Audrey Braun: A Small Fortune and Fortune's Deadly Descent. She owns the Cloud & Leaf Bookstore in Manzanita, Oregon, the real-life version of Nestucca Beach.
Read my earlier interview with Deborah Reed here.