Monday 26 July 2021

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Landscape of a Marriage, by Gail Ward Olmsted

Fictional  Biography

"A marriage of convenience leads to a life of passion and purpose. A shared vision transforms the American landscape forever. New York, 1858: Mary, a young widow with three children, agrees to marry her brother-in-law Frederick Law Olmsted, who is acting on his late brother's deathbed plea to 'not let Mary suffer.' But she craves more than a marriage of convenience and sets out to win her husband's love. Beginning with Central Park in New York City, Mary joins Fred on his quest to create a 'beating green heart' in the center of every urban space. Over the next 40 years, Fred is inspired to create dozens of city parks, private estates and public spaces with Mary at his side. Based upon real people and true events, this is the story of Mary's journey and personal growth and the challenges inherent in loving a brilliant and ambitious man."

Landscape of A Marriage is a life of the 19th-century American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted seen through the eyes of his wife Mary. While the projects of his life form a framework for the story, they are not the focus. Instead, we see Frederick as husband and father, and both his weaknesses and his strengths.

Mary had been previously married to Frederick’s brother John, who died of tuberculosis. The marriage was perhaps one of convenience at its beginning, a duty on Frederick’s part, a safety net for Mary and her three children. The author, through Mary’s eyes, shows us a partnership growing from affection into love, although Frederick was far from an easy man, focused on work and frequently away from home for extended periods.

The story is told in a series of vignettes, and fitting the time and conventions of the period, there is a restraint to them, as if Mary is writing to a friend but still with the reticence and decorum expected of a middle-class woman.  Problems are mentioned, but usually made light of, and almost every vignette ends with a solution. Only in grief do we glimpse the woman behind this fa├žade.

The author evokes time and place well, and she weaves Frederick’s projects and Mary’s life together effectively. Mary was brought up to believe ‘she was made of sterner stuff’; weakness or reaching for help is beneath her, and this colours what she chooses to reveal. Her reserve in recounting episodes in her marriage leaves much for the reader to ponder and consider. We are left with an impression of a strong, practical woman who has made the best of what life offers her, choosing to highlight her blessings and downplay – but not ignore – the difficulties.  

Like an old photo album, she shows us a life filtered through a lens, memories captured in light and shadow, chosen and arranged for posterity. 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Marian L. Thorpe
 e-version reviewed

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