Two years after her husband Ford’s death from cancer, Anna Rosenthal feels frozen in time. The thirty-five-year-old widow is not only grieving; she is still coming to terms with two sad facts about her marriage. Before he died, her husband had begun to hate her. While family and friends attribute Ford’s cruel words to sickness and medication, they haunt Anna still. Even worse is a secret she’s never shared with anyone: “By the time her husband died, Anna Rosenthal suspected that she had married the wrong man, that they had never been right for each other and never would have been right had he lived.” Anna knows she should be grieving her husband, but this realization overwhelms any feelings of loss: “She felt very little, actually, except emptiness and an uncertainty about the future,” Memphis native Dana Sachs writes in her new novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace.
What Anna needs is a goal, and her grandmother Goldie unexpectedly supplies one. The two have been estranged for five years, ever since Goldie denounced Ford as an unacceptable fiancé with “a nothing job, a nothing income, and a nothing life.” Goldie herself had left Memphis half a century earlier to make something of her life, and Anna’s decision to stay in the city and marry a university librarian is inexplicable to her.
Goldie reappears because she wants Anna to accompany her on a car trip from New York to San Francisco to return some Japanese prints to their original owners. A family had given them to Goldie for safekeeping while they were interned during World War II, and the journey to California gives Anna a purpose of her own. If her grandmother has wrongly kept the prints, then Anna feels tangentially guilty, too, for they were part of a childhood ritual of her own: she and Goldie would drink pretend tea, eat M&M’s, and look at the prints together. So the two of them set off in a forty-year-old Rolls Royce named Bridget to return the art to its rightful owner and perhaps to reconnect as a family, as well, and give Anna a vision for her future.
Road-trip stories are a staple of American literature, but Sachs avoids clichés as she divides the novel into scenes that alternate between Anna’s present attempt to put her life back together and Goldie’s attempt to begin her own in San Francisco decades earlier. Readers will shake their heads over Goldie’s sharp tongue: On Ford: “He trapped you in Memphis. You were young and too stupid to understand you could find a better match.” On Anna’s tattoo: “So, are you a sailor now? Are you a criminal? A murderer? A thug?” But the San Francisco chapters show a different side to Goldie, a girl who managed to make it on her own despite hardships, disappointments, and a broken heart. Her past has made her a woman who doesn’t look back, just as Anna’s has not allowed her to move forward.
Goldie follows Dickinson’s admonition to “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” Even her confidences to Anna about those early years are often just a bit overdramatized, as the San Francisco chapters show. Of her pregnancy with Anna’s father, she says, “I could have died—like a hobo!—in the street.” Of an earlier miscarriage: “He drugged my ginger ale. Got me pregnant. I was so young. I barely understood a thing. Then I started bleeding at work. I collapsed—collapsed!—behind the tie display. Then I had to have surgery, and I almost died in the hospital.”
Rosie’s embroidered version of the past is matched by an emphasis on images of art throughout The Secret of the Nightingale Palace. Anna illustrates a comic book, Shaina Bright, Danger Ranger, while she herself is afraid to move on. The Japanese prints bond Goldie to the Nakamura family, their original owners, as well as to her granddaughter, and she obviously hopes they will work their magic again. But the greatest work of art is Goldie herself, who invented the current Goldie years ago in San Francisco, brought her to a new life in New York, and kept her secrets for all these years. Goldie is a living example of the way art hides as much as it reveals.
The Secret of the Nightingale Palace is a fascinating look at the secrets we keep and the heartaches that even the happiest and wealthiest among us suffer. But it is also a novel of redemption, of overcoming the obstacles that fate throws in our way. We all have something to learn from Goldie.
[To listen to a podcast interview with Dana Sachs by Chapter 16‘s Stephen Usery, click here.]
To hear Stephen Usery’s podcast interview with Dana Sachs for Chapter 16, click here.