Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Glass Ocean by Lori Baker: a Review

Czech glass makers Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka were so taken by the ephemeral, translucent nature of marine invertebrates that they use the art of sculpted glass to capture the essence of these complex sea creatures.

American author Lori Baker was so taken by the story of the Blaschkas and their work creating glass replicas of underwater life that she used fiction and the art of the sculpted word to capture the essence of their complex 19th century lives.

Setting her book, The Glass Ocean, against the backdrop of Victorian England, a time of great discovery and exploration but also of upheaval both physical and emotional, Ms. Baker created characters as complex and ephemeral as the underwater creatures represented in glass by both the real and her fictional glass makers.

Told from the point of view of Carlotta Dell’oro, the daughter of glass maker Leonardo Dell’oro and the beautiful but egocentric and untouchable Clotilde Girard, who never stopped mourning the disappearance of her adventurer/collector father Felix Girard, The Glass Ocean is a study in character. 

Lori Baker’s prose is poetic, dreamlike, mesmerizing. A work of literary fiction, this is not a summer, read-at-the-beach kind of book by any means.  The narrative is dense, and what little dialogue there is is embedded in the narrative using italics rather than quotation marks to signify its presence. The first few pages captivated me. Then I began to wonder, can this author sustain the intensity of such a poetic style?  Can I sustain interest?  

In fact, Baker does sustain her intensity. And just about the time I started feeling antsy with the story, it took a right turn in terms of plot and I was captivated all over again.

I use the term story loosely here, as the Glass Ocean is not so much a story in the traditional sense, the way a mystery or romance novel might be plotted, but rather Baker’s is a study in character.  The glass in her Glass Ocean is a metaphor for the intricate fragility of her characters’ psyches.  It’s as if she spent the 330 plus pages sculpting her characters, much as the glass figurines in the story were sculpted.  

The Glass Ocean is not a book for everyone. Those who love literary fiction, who enjoy crafted writing, unique styles, complex and multi-layered characters will appreciate Baker's work.  But I recommend that anyone who loves to read give it a try, because even those who prefer more plot-driven stories may be surprised and find they can’t stop turning the pages.

Author Lori Baker has taught fiction writing, journalism, and composition at Brown University, Boston College, and Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.  She currently lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island.  The Glass Ocean is available through and well as other online vendors and bookstores.

The glass works of Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka can be viewed in various locations on the Cornell University campus