It seems logical that a bookstore owner would be a writer — especially the former proprietor of Woodstock’s used bookshop, The Reader’s Quarry, where owner Anne Benson used to stock the shelves according to her fine and wide-ranging literary tastes. I was not surprised to learn that since she sold the store in 2012 to Daniel Sofaer — another quirky and well-read litterateur — Benson has been writing a novel.
When I went to her home to pick up a copy of Sailing Directions (CreateSpace, 2013), I was startled to learn what an adventurous life she has had — with plenty of grist for novel-writing. She has not spent all her time reading and selling books but has flown airplanes, worked as a chef, and sailed aboard boats in New England, the Bahamas, and Greece.
During our visit, a number of stories unreeled from Benson’s lips, such as an account of her trip to India with her second husband. A member of a Newport, Rhode Island, family of artists, artisans and stone-carvers, he took her on an art-buying expedition on behalf of an antique dealer. She described the dislocation of an American in India with astonishing precision and detail. Finally, she revealed that her husband died of a heart attack three years into the marriage, leading to the story she tells in Sailing Directions, described as “a novelized memoir of grief and recovery along the shores of Greece.”
A friend, about to take a job as a ship’s captain, convinced Benson — or Nina, as she is called in the book — to come along as the cook on a wealthy American’s 100-foot yacht, hoping it would help shake off her grief. Sunny Greece, the ocean, and Désirée, the antique wooden yacht, are supporting characters in the deftly drawn tale of life on a ship in the Mediterranean, under the thumb of a tyrannical, self-indulgent financier who wishes to be called “Boss.”
There are minor problems with the book, mainly due to a need for copyediting and proofreading — which could be done, and the book easily revised, given its print-on-demand status. While the errors are distracting, they do not diminish the storytelling skills that paint precise portraits of the heroine, the alternately supportive and contentious crew, and the Boss, amidst the language of navigation and the sea.
I know next to nothing about sailing, but I love to read about “the rumble of blocks along the mainsheet traveler,” even while having no idea what any of those terms mean. It’s easy to relate to the thrill evoked when “there’s a crack as the great sail fills with wind, and they begin to move.”
Lest we cherish a romantic image of life on a yacht, we witness Nina’s confinement for hours a day in a stifling hot galley, struggling to make gourmet meals from the scanty supplies she’s able to buy in the Greek coastal villages. Benson succeeds in conveying the sensuous qualities of food — not so much in the eating but in the preparation. My favorite line in the book is her quote from chef Alice Waters: “Cooking, preparing food, involves far more than creating a meal for family or friends: it has to do with keeping yourself intact.”
And Nina is working hard at keeping herself intact as the first anniversary of her husband Jake’s death approaches. Between her persistent grief and her demanding job, she feels like falling apart much of the time. Without heavy-handed sentiment, Benson weaves in the undercurrent of Nina’s grappling with the pain of having been widowed at the tender age of 37.
Meanwhile, she has to admit there’s an attraction between herself and the captain, Alex, Jake’s close friend. Nina and Alex tiptoe around this ticklish situation, adding a layer of suspense.
Benson does a superb juggling act, keeping all her interacting themes and tensions in the air — Nina’s grief, Alex’s allure, the Boss’s pigheadedness, the trouble with wealth, flirtatious Greek men, the art of cooking, the grit and splendor of sailing — in such a way that the reader keeps wanting to know what will happen to the cast of characters — especially the aging, graceful yacht.
Sailing Directions by Anne Benson is available on Amazon.com.