In her 19th novel, Skylight Confessions, Alice Hoffman explores wrong turns, regrets, and the legacy of dark secrets passed on in three generations of a tragic and dysfunctional family. Released on the 30th anniversary of the publication of her first novel, Property Of, Hoffman’s latest is a modern fairytale of fate and consequences.
The night following her father’s funeral, seventeen-year-old Arlyn Singer stands on the porch of her Long Island home waiting for destiny to arrive. And with the romantic sort of thinking that gets most young people into trouble, she tells herself that the first man who walks down the street will be her one true love. When a lost young man stops to ask her for directions, Arlyn invites him in to rest. Completely bewitched by the red-haired, freckled-faced girl, he stays for three days. He wakes up on the third morning as if from a dream and realizes his mistake. He tries to run from fate, but Arlyn follows him to Connecticut; she has decided that he is her future. “That was the way the future worked,” Hoffman writes. “People often disappeared right into it and all any one could do was hope for the best.”
The couple marries, but the dreamy Arlyn soon finds that her new husband, the aptly named John Moody, has little interest in her and even less in their son Sam. Disenchanted, Arlyn directs her attention to Sam, a somber little boy obsessed with death and bones, who lives with the dread that something terrible is about to happen. The unhappy family moves into the Glass Slipper, a house built by John’s famous architect father. Constructed of glass and steel and with hundreds of windows that attract flocks of blackbirds, the structure proves to be more of a cage than a home.
Neglected by her husband and suspecting an affair brewing between John and their neighbor Cynthia, Arlyn turns to George Snow, the window washer, and begins a liaison of her own. Finding true love at last, she is happy until, shortly after giving birth to Snow’s daughter Blanca, she discovers a “stone” in her breast. Unable to cope with his father’s coldness and his mother’s illness, Sam comforts himself with the stories his mother tells him about a tribe of people in Connecticut who could sprout wings in the face of disaster and fly away. Hoffman writes, “He might be one of them; a boy who could fly away from danger and heartbreak and never feel a thing.”
Ten years later, the residents of the Glass Slipper continue on a downward spiral of despair and trouble. John and his second wife Cynthia (the evil stepmother imperative to any good fairytale), struggle with the 16-year old, drug-addicted Sam. Ten-year-old Blanca, always on her best behavior, avoids family strife by escaping into books. Along comes Meredith Weiss, a young woman struggling with her own grief, who is drawn to the family when she sees visions of a red-haired woman following John Moody. Meredith takes on the role of the children’s nanny, hoping that by saving the self-destructing Sam, she can somehow come to grips with the guilt from her past.
The third section of the tale belongs to the grown Blanca, who escapes her hapless family to sell fairytale books in London. Blanca believes in “the assured cruelty of fate,” but in the end, it is she who uncovers her family’s secrets and reconciles the past.
Skylight Confessions captivates in the beginning, but the story becomes mired in melodrama as it progresses. Although their ambiguous natures make them difficult to sympathize with at times, Hoffman's characters are unforgettably real. Set in a modern–but unspecified– time period, Skylight Confessions is told in Hoffman’s typical folkloric and timeless style. The book is heavy on foreshadowing and symbolism (birds, stones, a “Glass Slipper”). It also contains all the elements of magical realism and the supernatural that Hoffman’s readers have come to expect from her—tales of winged people, ghosts, a strand of pearls that changes colors, etc.
Despite the fantastical elements in Hoffman’s writing, the inner lives of her characters are always emotionally real—sometimes painfully so. And the questions of choice vs. circumstance Hoffman probes in Skylight Confessions are universal:
“Did you ever wonder if we were really meant to be together?”
“God, Arlie,” John laughed. “Is that what’s keeping you awake?” He had stopped wondering about that. He’d made a wrong turn and here they were, years later, in bed.
“Go to sleep. Forget things like that. That kind of thinking doesn’t do you any good.”