The actions of Norris Lamb may occasionally embarrass you. The 55-year-old postmaster and hero of Carrie Brown’s new novel, Lamb in Love, makes his first appearance poking out from behind a chestnut tree, hoping to catch a glimpse of Vida Stephen, to whom he is afraid to declare his love. They may even make you cringe, as when he sneaks into Vida’s bedroom to bestow an anonymous gift of a silk nightgown and robe, leaving a fearful Vida to believe that there is something not quite right about her secret admirer. Yet with every squirm Norris induces, you also long to pull him aside, put your arm around him, and offer him advice and encouragement in his campaign to win the 41-year-old Vida. For he is of such generous and unimpeachable heart that he proves to be as beguiling as the novel that bears his name.
“Vida is almost old enough now to be considered a spinster,” Brown writes. “And no one has ever known her to have a young man. What a pity, people say. She might have had children of her own. But Norris knows — he believes he alone knows — what is still there to be rescued and revived. He imagines that he sees what others, lacking the wondrous prism of his passion, cannot. She has been waiting, he thinks. All along, she has been waiting. And now, could she love him? Could she? . . . I will love her so well, he thinks, that she will have to love me back. That’s the way it works.”
“Norris is so well-intentioned,” Carrie Brown says in a phone interview from her home in Sweet Briar, Virginia. “He makes tons of mistakes. He makes them over and over again. But he’s trying so hard to do the right thing.” It is a quality he shares with the hero of her first novel, Rose’s Garden, which recently won the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. Vida Stephen, the object of Norris’s affection, also shares this quality. “I’m really interested, I’ve discovered, in people’s efforts to be good in the world. It feels to me a slightly old-fashioned concern. But in a lot of ways, that is what I almost always come back to. Obviously, both Norris and Vida are, to greater or lesser degrees, actually pretty conscious about living their lives virtuously, in some way.”
Indeed, Vida has devoted her life to the mute and motherless Manford Perry, to whom she became a full-time nanny while still a young woman, and before he was diagnosed as severely mentally and physically handicapped. But Vida loves Manford fiercely, and Brown delineates Manford with such resonant, finely calibrated details that the reader comes to love him as well: his endearing way of walking with his hands bouncing on the air; the way he pulls Vida’s hand to his cheek; the occasional shyness that causes him to cover his face with his hands; and peculiar, magical gifts. (He creates shadow play animals with his nimble hands and decorates bakery cakes with sugary weeds and flowers resembling those in the gardens of Southend House, the once beautiful estate where Manford and Vida live and which Manford’s absent father allowed to fall into ruin when he learned of his son’s disabilities.)
Though blessed with rare empathy and imagination, Brown’s tender portrait of Manford is also infused with life experience. One of Brown’s three children has cerebral palsy, and although her daughter’s impairments are all physical, not mental, Brown says she and her husband have had “plenty of experience in the community of the disabled.”
“Obviously, I didn’t set out to write a treatise on how we ought to treat the disabled in our culture and in our community. But it’s certainly clear to me that the world can be a cruel place if you’re a child,” Brown says. “The world can be a cruel place if you’re disabled. There are opportunities for cruelty at every turn.” She pauses, then adds in an uncharacteristically world-weary voice, “You don’t really have the whole market on it if you’re disabled. But you come in for a good share of it.”
Even kindly Norris, who experienced cruelty as an awkward boy and who would never treat Manford cruelly himself, is not initially comfortable in Manford’s presence. What is he afraid of? Norris wonders. “That Manford will do something peculiar? Yes, that.” And by extension, that people will view him as strange if they see him associating with Manford. For in his own way, he is as isolated from others as Manford; he has no intimate friends, and like Vida, has never experienced love or a romantic relationship. “He has certainly had the experience of loneliness,” Brown says. “But he has lived in this village all his life . . . So he does not feel like a stranger in the world. And I think in a way, it isn’t until he falls in love with Vida that it comes to him with a lot of painful force that he has been terribly isolated. And that if he doesn’t make something happen here with her now, that he never will.”
The urgency of Norris’s love, “at last, at such an age,” and his hope that Vida may return his love, give Lamb in Love a poignancy that is hard-won and rare.
Indeed, that this man whose hopes have been repeatedly dashed, this man who has never danced a step but believes that he may yet dance “like a gazelle,” comes to seem a marvel of sorts, and his hope an act of courage. “I think he’s really kind of heroic in a way,” says his creator. “He’s such a charming guy. And such a nuisance, too, in some ways.”
And what if that charming nuisance who “shouldered his way” into her fictional world were to show up at the doorstep of Sanctuary Cottage, the old farmhouse she shares with her husband and three children? Would she welcome him into her life? Could she imagine herself hanging out with him and Vida?
“Well, I don’t know that they’re the ‘hanging out sort,'” she laughs. “But in a way, I think they are the people in my life. I sometimes wonder whether people ever look around and think: ‘These are my friends? This is my life?'” She laughs. “If you ever stop to do that, you can sort of see what you life is made of . . . I’d hate for that to sound as though I was surrounded by a group of wild eccentrics. Because I don’t believe I am. But I certainly find myself in communities over and over again where I cross paths with those people all the time . . . I think they are the people of my life.”
Laura Reynolds Adler lives in New York City and regularly interviews authors.