The Language of Light: A Novel

The Language of Light: A Novel

by Meg Waite Clayton

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Nelly Grace is starting over. With her two young sons, Nelly has fled to the simple stone house built by her great-grandfather in the moneyed horse country of Maryland in order to escape the grief of her husband’s death—and perhaps find a way back to her first love: photography. Easing her transition into this strange, mannered world is Emma Crofton, the grand matriarch of the foxhunting community, and Emma’s son, Dac, a handsome yet distant horse trainer. As Nelly slowly makes her way back to the camera, she must come to terms with her troubled relationship with her father, a photojournalist who chose fame over family. But when she finally sees him again, Nelly’s fragile new beginning is threatened by revelations of a secret past, and the fears that kept it hidden.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345526656
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/28/2011
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 210,492
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Meg Waite Clayton is the nationally bestselling author of The Wednesday Daughters, The Four Ms. Bradwells, The Wednesday Sisters, and The Language of Light. Her books have been published in six languages, and her essays and stories have aired on public radio and appeared in national news publications. A graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, Clayton lives with her family in Palo Alto, California.

Read an Excerpt


Emma Crofton was sixty-nine when I first met her, in the autumn of the year Wesley died. I'd just packed up our belongings and moved to Maryland with my two sons: Ned, who would tell you he was not just eight but rather eight and a quarter, and Charlie, who'd just turned six. We'd come to live in a simple stone house my great-grandfather had built on a hundred acres of horse country ninety years before. The farm belonged to my father by then, and though he hadn't visited it in years it was full of warm memories for him: swimming in the muddy-bottomed pond and following deer tracks through the woods, capturing turtles and frogs and snakes my great-grandmother allowed him to keep in large pickle jars when he spent summers there. For me, though, the farm was an empty place, full of other people's histories, surrounded by other people's friends living other people's lives, a thousand miles away from the life I knew. A life that had seemed to close in around me in the wake of Wesley's death.

That afternoon I met her, the sky was overcast, dreary, but the boys were outside anyway, down by the pond skipping rocks, Boomer, our golden retriever, barking at their heels. I was inside, sitting at Wesley's old desk, sorting through a messy pile of my photographs. Just as I glanced up to check on the boys, the sun peeked through the clouds, shooting rays out, fanlike, through the gap, and that's when I saw her: a stranger riding across my bridge on horseback, wearing a hat.

Emma wore hats generally, not just at St. James's Church, where all the ladies still wore hats in the old-fashioned way-and, quite frankly, not that kind of hat. You'd never catch Emma Crofton in a timid little pillbox or a floppy sunbonnet. She sported bold hats that marked her approach from some distance: men's felt bowlers in bright colors with feathers tucked into the ribbons; wide, strong- brimmed hats that blocked your view from behind; or, when she was perched on her tractor cutting her fields, the old brown suede hat that, Willa later told me, had belonged to Emma's husband before he died. When Emma was riding, though, she wore a simple black riding cap with a hunting coat and black britches, as she did that day. Her back was straight, her head motionless, as she bobbed smoothly up and down on the chestnut horse. She made her way up the gravel drive, looking as if she belonged a hundred years back in time, on an English country estate. Only the spatters of mud on her polished leather boots seemed to belong in my life.

I watched her through the window with a great deal of curiosity and a small measure of hope, and when she'd ridden nearly to my front porch, I came outside to greet her. She dismounted, moving as gracefully as a young girl though her face was weathered and deeply lined. She brought the reins over the horse's head and tied them to the lowest branch of the maple next to the drive. The horse snorted lightly and stepped forward a few paces, leaving horseshoe shapes of compressed grass where his hooves had been. Emma clicked her tongue twice and tapped him with her crop, coaxing him back up onto the drive. The animal smell of him mingled with the smell of decaying leaves.

"I'm Nelly Grace," I said, offering my hand, realizing only then that I still held one of my photos.

Emma nodded twice, sharply, and in a voice not quite perfectly American-English, I thought, or something English-like-she said, "Yes, of course you are."

She'd come to welcome me to the neighborhood, a "country neighborhood" that stretched across five square miles of land. Her place was one hill over to the south and slightly east, she said, and I wondered where that was in terms of streets (which only later did I come to call roads) but for fear of appearing ignorant did not ask.

I pointed out Ned and Charlie, their skinny bodies no taller than the remains of the pussy willows at the pond's edge, only their nearly black hair-my straight, thick hair-setting them apart, and she said she had a son, too, though he was grown now. He lived in a house on the farm they worked together, she said. That was done a lot there: siblings of families that had been in the area for generations lived on farms that bordered each other, family compounds in which the eldest child moved into the parents' house when the parents died, one of their children in turn getting their house, the cousins growing up together, leaving for whatever Ivy League college their family had attended forever (Princeton, generally), but always coming back. "It's rather nice," Emma said, "grandparents hunting with their grandchildren." Foxhunting, she explained; she was master of the hounds then, the first woman ever to be master, though she didn't tell me that.

"Nearly everyone here rides," she said. "We put them on horses even before they're your Charlie's age."

She said she hoped I'd consider leaving my farm open to riders; the hunt club had taken care of clearing the paths through the woods for years, and would be happy to continue to do so if I'd let them ride through. "Why don't you join us at the races Saturday, and I'll introduce you around?" she said. She had a spot at the finish line, and we'd have a tailgate party with my neighbors, Willa Jenkins, who lived up the road on the left, and Kirby and Joan, who had that pretty yellow house on the right.

"You'll enjoy Kirby," Emma said, "though you may not know it at first. He's an architect, but he designs sailboats, writes music, and plays the cello just as well as he builds buildings. He sings light opera in a local theater troupe, Gilbert and Sullivan and that type of thing, and he makes the most marvelous scones, though he's not even English." She leaned toward me and lowered her voice. "But he's rather odd-looking, to be honest. I'm afraid his features don't quite go together somehow."


"Not quite symmetrical, I suppose. But don't let his looks scare you off. Or his manner either. He tends to be a bit flamboyant, but it's all for show and he's quite a fine sort underneath.

"Now, Joan?.?.?.?well, she is what she is. A lot of people don't like her-they say she's opinionated and bossy. And she is. But I like her anyway. She was kind to me when I first came here with Davis, when?.?.?.?when she might not have been.

"You'll love Willa," she continued as I shot a quick glance at Ned and Charlie, still skipping rocks.

"Everyone does," she said. "Particularly the married men, though even their wives can't seem to help liking her."

I said I'd love to go.

Emma, glancing toward the photograph in my hand, suggested I might bring my camera. I pulled the photo closer to me-almost a reflex-then made myself look at it with forced nonchalance. It was an old photo: a bell-bottomed, sign-carrying woman shouting angrily as she marched in a teacher's picket line. I'd thought when I'd taken the photo that I would submit it to my school newspaper, but on developing it, I'd seen I should have looked for a better angle or moved in closer- something about the shot wasn't quite right.

"That is your photograph?" Emma said. "I thought at first it was one of your father's, but it's yours, isn't it?"

Perhaps it should have struck me then that she knew my father's work, but so many people did that it never surprised me. Or perhaps I was simply too wrapped up in wishing I'd moved in closer for that shot, or in realizing how much that woman's angry face looked like Wesley's that last time we'd argued, I do remember thinking that. In any case I only nodded reluctantly and said yes, the photo was mine.

Emma smiled warmly, showing slightly gray teeth. "Yes, do bring your camera," she said.

She pulled a small Mason jar from her jacket pocket then, one with a plain, white sticker on the top that read emma's peach in barely legible blue ink. "I don't know if it's good," she said. "I've never made it before."

"I'm sure it will be wonderful, Mrs. Crofton," I said.

Emma hiked her boot up into the stirrup and swung her free leg easily over her horse. "Please, Nelly, won't you call me Emma?" she said.

"Emma, then," I said, and I stood on my front porch, waving a little half-wave and watching her ride off.

I had to peel Charlie off my legs when the baby-sitter arrived the morning of the races. Ned, older and braver, looked droopy and didn't say a word. They weren't clingy children, but ever since their father died they didn't like me to go anywhere.

I would rather have stayed home myself, to be honest. The thing about losing someone is that the fear becomes real, or at least it did for me; I knew that everyone could disappear from my life in the single moment it took for any one of a million things I couldn't even imagine to occur. For months after Wesley died, after his car skidded off that icy road, I would pull my pillow and blanket into the boys' bedroom at night and lie on the floor, listening to the deep, easy rhythms of their breaths.

Some nights I still did.

I went to the races that day, though, walking up the hill to Kirby and Joan's farm, where we settled on driving together in Joan's station wagon; we had only one parking pass and we couldn't all fit into Emma's beat-up old truck without riding in the truck bed, an opportunity Kirby declined for us on the excuse of his sport coat and his white shirt and tie.

"These will be point-to-point races," Kirby told me, as if I might have a clue what that meant. "Hurdles and timber races and steeplechase." Terms he was clearly sure I understood. I said, "Right, sure," as if I did understand, feeling uneasy under the focus of his dark eyes and bushy black eyebrows set in a crooked, Dudley Do- Right-chinned face. He was ugly, as Emma had suggested, but in a fascinating sort of way. Part of me wanted to zoom in for a close-up; part of me wanted to cap the lens and back away.

Not that I'd brought my camera-I hadn't. A fact Emma noted as she settled a broad-brimmed red felt hat on her head, the reflected sunlight casting a warm glow on her face.

"You forgot your camera, Nelly," she said.

"I- Yes," I said. "I forgot."

And when she offered to swing by and get it on the way out, I found myself admitting it was still packed. "I'm afraid I haven't even uncovered the box quite yet," I said.

Emma looked at me oddly, as if I were speaking an unknown language but she somehow understood my meaning from the tone of my voice, the expression on my face. Well, next time, she said after a moment, and I said yes, next time.

She handed us each a ticket then, a small square pink thing with a horse logo and the words restricted enclosure printed on it, with a green string attached. Following Willa's lead, I busied myself tying my ticket to a button of my blouse, and we loaded the picnic basket into the way-back of Joan's station wagon and drove to a large stone home perched upon a high hill, with views all around and a mile-long lawn stretching down to the road. There were cars already parked in their spots on the lawn, and we, too, drove right across the grass, to our space.

The place was festive, people mingling, drinking champagne from crystal flutes, and eating stuffed mushrooms and pasta salads and caviar. We spread our own picnic on a red-checked tablecloth on the tailgate, and Emma poured champagne and we began to discuss the races: who was riding which horse in which race and who'd been running well lately and who'd won these same races last year. Or rather, the others talked and I listened. I heard the name Dac come up again and again, and finally I caught on that he was Emma's son. I looked in the program and there he was, Davis A. Crofton V, named as the trainer for a number of horses running that day. Even, on one page, two in the same race.

We visited that way for a while, together with a stream of visitors who came and went, subjects paying homage to Emma. And as the race starting time (post time, Willa said) drew near, Kirby proposed a small betting pool.

"Winner takes all," Emma insisted.

"You want your horse, or are you feeling overinvested in this one?" Kirby lifted one eyebrow and we all laughed, and I looked down at my program to see a horse named Foolish Heart, owned by Emma and trained by Dac, running in the first race.

"You might as well hand me the money," Emma said.

Joan chose a horse named Regal's Q, whatever that meant, and Kirby took Double Barrel, saying that with a name like that, he'd better come out fast. Willa put her money on Tom's War, saying it fit her violent mood these days, and everyone laughed, including Willa, though I didn't understand why, not yet knowing the difficulties of her divorce.

I put my dollar on Newsbeat, thinking of my father, from whom I'd received a quickly jotted postcard that morning, a photo from the Archbishop's Palace in Lima with apologies for not having made it back to help us move. The boys had been so looking forward to his visit, too, to having Grandpa Pat show them his farm. And I wondered then how they were doing with the sitter. I hoped she liked playing Monopoly, or Clue, or Crazy Eights.

Behind us, two green-and-white striped tents that had been filled only with white folding chairs when we arrived began to fill with men in coats and ties and women in skirts and hats-one stooped old woman was dressed all in horses, on her skirt and sweater and even on her hat-while below us, along the post-and-rail fence marking the edge of the course, people in all manner of attire collected: men in blue jeans with babies in backpacks strapped on their broad shoulders, teenage girls with red lipstick and bright dresses, beamy women with big hair and pastel pants. Some brought along lawn chairs or picnic blankets, and some just stood or sat on the ground along the fence. Some brought binoculars. Some brought cameras. Some brought children, who ran around like trapped ants until their mothers or their fathers made them stop. It was wonderfully chaotic, spirited, amusing in a way that our enclosure, with its champagne-drinking, pink-ticketed patrons, was somehow not.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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The Language of Light : A Novel 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
cabnthrulife More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up randomly at one of the closing Border's bookstores. I was drawn to it because it contained 2 of my most favorite things: photography & horses. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book during my lunch hours (when I read the most). It had a nice light, loving feeling to it. The struggle that Nelly endured to move forward in her life with childhood passions while trying to make sense of her past with her late husband and her father is real and palpable. Well written and touched the heart and soul.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Language of Light has a remarkable sense of place. Reading it was like taking a brisk ride down a country lane in the early morning sunshine with the wind in your hair. The smell of new-mown hay entices, and the play of sunlight promises new discoveries just over the next rise. And discovery is what this book is all about. When Nelly Grace, a young widow, returns with her sons to her father's ancestral home, she encounters secrets about her famous photographer father's past--secrets that threaten to shatter the peace she thinks she has found. But in unraveling those secrets, Nelly finds something else. She finds a self-knowledge and a new identity that takes her beyond wife, mother, daughter, as she digs her own tarnished dreams--and her camera--out of mothballs and goes in search of her own light.
aimless22 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading Ms Clayton's debut novel. I was unaware that it was her first until after I finished due to the fact that I have stopepd reading the jackets. My apologies to the jacket writers out there, but I am in a place where I want to find out the whole story as I go. I found myself very attracted to the characters, especially Nelly, the protagonist. A young widow with two kids, she moves away from the city and to a farm house her father owns and once lived in. She never knew of the place, adding intrigue to her father's character.She befriends Emma Crofton, or rather Emma befriends her. The mysterious connection that Emma hints at keeps Nelly wondering, but she enjoys her company and that of her son, Dac. The connection between Nelly's father and Emma grows as Nelly'd does with Dac. Though neither come to typical fairy tale solutions, the relationships are interesting.I was a little distracted by the thought that Emma might be manipulating Nelly in not very nice ways, but came to conclude that her worries or guesses could be true and she felt she must warn Nelly.The most powerful storyline is Nelly's war with her self confidence. Never feeling as good as the other two photographers in the family, Nelly has always doubted herself. Her new freedom to make her own decisions allows her to explore her desires and ambitions. She finds herself.While there is no resolution to the Nelly/Dac story, I'd like to think they remained friends and perhaps grew closer. The key to this was Nelly's self evaluation and her newfound confidence.I enjoyed the writing and the story very much. Good Job!
voracious on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Nelly is a young widow who moves to her famous photojournalist father's inherited country estate soon after her husband's death to seek a new life for her two young boys and herself. Soon after moving in, Nelly finds support from Emma, an affluent and powerful matron of the community, who has owned and raced horses since she emigrated from England after World War II. Nelly finds herself conflicted as she struggles with the grief for her husband and her emerging interest in Emma's son, Dac. As Nelly attempts to make sense of the entangled relationships and secrets of her friends' pasts, Nelly recommits herself to her lifelong passion for photography while questioning her own potential as a photojournalist and what it would mean to her to follow in her father's footsteps. As with "The Wednesday Sisters", I found myself enraptured by Meg Waite Clayton's story, which was rich in sensory descriptions which are capable of evoking strong visceral responses in the reader. I found myself in tears several times during the story, which were lightened by the supportive and loving moments with the children and Nelly's newfound friends. My only criticism is the limited resolution in the ending, which falls short in helping the reader detach from the powerful characters and their unresolved conflicts. This novel is scheduled to be re-released in Spring 2011, which will no doubt be a successful maneuver given Ms. Waite Clayton's growing reputation as a very talented writer, which will surely reach a pinnacle after the release of her newest novel, The Four Ms. Bradwells (March 2011).
nhr3bookcrazyNR More than 1 year ago
Honestly? I have conflicting feelings on this book. Some great passages; very real emotions and characters. Confusing seques at time. Great descriptions of the topics of photography, and horsemanship, and the locations. And lots of tense emotions between people, which left me disquieted. And the ending was too ... abrupt. But it did keep me turning the pages because I was caught up in the story. I was just unsatisfied with the end of the book. Left with questions.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have been having a hard time reading this book. I could not figure out why. Now I know why. It is so boring......yawn. Not her best work. Good thing I only spent 2.00 on it. May not even finish it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Language of Light takes us into the world of a widowed mother and aspiring photojournalist in her struggle to answer the disparate callings of parenthood, love, and devotion to her art. Nelly Grace¿s relationship with her deceased husband haunts her. She loved him deeply, but he seemed to dismiss her photography as merely a hobby. Nelly wrestles with guilt over her passion to pursue her creative impetus. Her children need her. If she follows the calling of the photographer¿s voice within her, will she follow in the footsteps of her too often absent father? What would allowing herself to become involved with the charming and enigmatic Dac Crofton mean to her art and her life? The Language of Light frames the universal question of self-expression in a tender and compelling narrative about one woman¿s journey. Finally, it is to herself¿a self she is only beginning to know¿that Nelly is true.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A beautifully written, heartwarming story of a young woman coming into her own. At its core, this novel is a thought-provoking exploration of the ways we love one another--daughters and fathers, mothers and sons, husbands and wives--and the misunderstandings, misssteps, and intrigues that can result.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Language of Light is a perfect curl-up-on-the-sofa and spend a rainy day reading kind of book! The characters feel as real as good friends, and I loved the glimpse into the world it portrays. Best of all, the writing is lovely!