Ah, so this will be a forbidden romance between Ellie and the harp — and the eccentric who gave it to her. Ellie’s assessment of Dan as “startlingly handsome” is revealing, as is the depiction of her husband as mean and controlling. But if this sounds like a scandal, it’s not: “Ellie and the Harpmaker” is an innocent, old-fashioned love story that could have been plucked from a simpler time.
Ellie, who does her best to please Clive, attempts to give the harp back. She returns to Dan’s Harp Barn, a magical enclave in the England wilds where he leads a solitary, earnest life. Dan is bewildered. “I guess giving away a harp is one of those many, many things you are not supposed to do,” he muses. “Why can’t I give her the harp? She likes the harp. She wants the harp. Isn’t it my harp to give?” As a compromise, Ellie agrees to leave the instrument at his barn and return to practice, outings she’ll conceal from Clive. “If the harp stayed here and I came to try it out once in a while . . . there would be no harm in that . . . would there?” she reasons. “Harm?” Dan replies. “In playing a harp?”
Of course, there’s plenty of harm to come. Short chapters alternate between the two protagonists’ perspectives as they fall into a routine of daily visits and nurture their obvious attraction. Outside the barn, Ellie is a far less compelling character, painfully forgiving of Clive’s aggressive treatment. He doesn’t allow her to have friends or interests; Ellie’s maddening reaction hovers around “I’m so lucky to have him” and “How precious it is to be loved.” Dan, meanwhile, seems to have a blond girlfriend who eventually becomes Ellie’s harp teacher. She’s most noted for her cleavage and lack of girlfriend-like behavior.
During their visits, Ellie practices the harp while Dan makes more harps. He also makes Ellie sandwiches — a dozen at a time, triangles stuffed with blue cheese and cucumber, cheddar and pickle. Dan is a lyrical man, able to wax poetic even about the beauty of a penny: “Its size is small, delicate, perfect. Its color is like a setting sun, bronze, bright, burnished. It has a raised rim around the edge, charming. The engraving on the reverse is portcullis, interesting.”
Without explicitly diagnosing him, Prior hints that Dan is autistic: He doesn’t like loud noises and can’t attend parties; he makes sounds and flaps his hands when upset. When his sister says that he makes her “tear her hair out,” he takes the phrase literally (“Her hair looks perfectly intact to me”). He laments, “ I don’t . . . see things that other people see. . . . I was just made of the wrong ingredients.”
Dan is the sort of intrinsically good person one can’t help but protect. So when Ellie discovers that his girlfriend is keeping a life-changing secret from him, she’s unable to stay out of it. Combine her meddling with Clive’s inevitable discovery of Ellie’s actions, and we’re nearing the crescendo — rising, rising, until all at once, competing notes collide.
“Ellie and the Harpmaker” is uplifting escapism. What could be a tired plot is instead fresh and sweet, rejuvenated by a set of unusual characters, the raw beauty of England and the musicality of Prior’s prose. Of course, there’s a certain suspension of belief required: Dan’s secluded Harp Barn is almost too fairy tale-like, his peculiarities bordering on the extreme.
Still, Prior’s lyricism feels like a warm song. This is a story that will make you want to take a walk through the woods and collect pebbles from a stream, then go home to dine on plum-jam sandwiches. And maybe, like the old harpist’s mandate, shed a tear and laugh a little.
Angela Haupt is a freelance writer and full-time health editor in D.C.
Ellie and the Harpmaker
By Hazel Prior
Berkley. 336 pp. $26