BY ALL ODDS, Winter Journey should not be a particularly successful novel. Its plot and characters are, on the surface anyway, fairly standard, if not trite. It's the story of a sensitive young man's coming of age, involving a voyage of discovery to -- where else? -- Rome, his ineffectual father left behind; his romance with a beautiful older woman, his music teacher; a friend who is a misunderstood homosexual; his mother's mysterious Italian lover; a tidy resolution, and so on. Yet, thanks to T. Alan Broughton's considerable talent, these stock elements combine into a moving, finely crafted novel, full of real people about whom the reader comes to care deeply.
Part of the novel's power lies in Broughton's ability to show the emotions of his major characters to be as disturbingly complex as our own: nothing is simple, no one is all good or all evil. Broughton accomplishes this primarily by shifting point of view between characters, particularly between the members of the Mitchell family -- Frank, a drama teacher at a woman's college outside Philadelphia; his wife Nancy; and their teen-age son Carey, a promising pianist. He allows things to develop slowly with passages of insight along the way in which the characters in turn mull over events and motives, much as characters in 19th-century novels do.
Frank Mitchell, for example, is a drunk and a philanderer, though not very successful at the latter, writing passionate letters to his female students but bored with anything beyond the pursuit itself. He isn't a very noble character, but Broughton makes us feel sympathy for him, for his "need for everything -- for her [Nancy] and for her real touch and understanding, but also for all the awareness of what he might be that the others gave him."
Equally understandable is his wife's decision to leave him, her confusion and pain and concern for Carey, her desperate need in the beginning to cling to the boy who is himself confused about what happened and what each of his parents want from him as well as about his own developing body. After a few months in an apartment across town, Nancy decides to take a job at the American embassy in Rome to leave "memories that seemed to have some edge to them now," embarking on a journey that becomes one of discovery for mother and son. In Rome, they become involved with a cast of interesting characters. Through these entanglements each of them is able in the end to acknowledge both independence and the web of family that binds them together.
The love stories, which might have been trite and silly, are tender -- Carey's affair with the beautiful Egyptian woman who is his piano teacher; and Nancy's with Alberto, her co-worker at the embassy, who lies about his past and yet who is redeemed by his very real concern for both Nancy and her son. Broughton has a real gift for writing about passion of the mind and heart as well as body, and one of the things that makes Winter Journey unique is the way in which Nancy's own awakening matches that of Carey.
This is an unpretentious novel -- there are no pyrotechnics here -- but there is some fine writing throughout. The book jacket compares the author's use of Rome as setting to Elizabeth Spencer's The Light in the Piazza, but its mingling of beauty and terror, its foreign-ness as catalyst, also reminded me of Henry James. And perhaps nowhere have I read such a true and moving evocation of what it means to be possessed by art as in the passage early in the novel when Carey goes to an Arthur Rubinstein concert: "He closed his eyes, followed nothing but the pure sound that was unraveling from the core of his own mind as much as entering his ears from the outside. Finally his breathing and pulse were governed by the music's sense of time, his body was the instrument the piece flowed through, and he did not know if he was playing, or Rubinstein, or if the music itself was playing all of them . . . . When the sonata was over he could not applaud at first: his hands were heavy, his body exhausted . . . . He wanted to shout. He wanted to stand with both hands on the railing and scream something wordless at that high and gaudy vault of gold and chandeliers. He knew, he knew. Oh, he might never play that well, but that was his world. That was where he belonged, it possessed him -- not just the outer circle of quiet people listening, their faces turned inward, the dim sweep of tiers, but even beyond his own hands moving where they had learned to go -- to the last core where the notes rose out of a silence as full as the deepest sleep."
Winter Journey is not a page-turner; it grows on one slowly, even deliberately. If it has a flaw, it is that the ending seems a little too neat, too pat, but that is a small one in a novel of so many virtues. There are, it seems, only so many stories to be told; Alan Broughton proves that what matters is the telling itself.