The History of Us author sets her new summer read on an isolated Tennessee mountaintop brimming with secrets.
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Described as “darkly sophisticated,” Leah Stewart‘s latest novel The New Neighbor follows an old woman with a dangerous curiosity about her new neighbor’s hidden past. Ninety-year-old Margaret Riley lives on a secluded Tennessee mountaintop with only the scenery, her memories working as a nurse during World War II and a stack of mystery novels to keep her company. When a young woman moves into the house across the pond, Margaret takes it as a challenge. She’s Miss Marple, and this stranger is just another mystery to be solved.
It just so happens that Margaret’s new neighbor Jennifer Young is on the run from her old life. She brought her 5-year-old son Milo to this quaint college town to start a new life where no one knows about her or her dead husband. Taking cues from the characters in her favorite novels, Margaret tries to uncover Jennifer’s secrets. As she becomes Jennifer’s massage client in the hopes of getting her to reveal something of her own, Margaret begins to tell her stories from the war during their sessions.
Despite Margaret’s willingness to open up, Jennifer can’t risk exposing her secrets to her neighbor or other members of the close-knit community. When a visitor from Jennifer’s past shows up on her doorstep, she’ll go even further to hold on to the new life she has so painstakingly created.
In a recent phone interview, we asked Leah Stewart about the inspiration for this book, some of her favorite spots in the Sewanee area and the novel’s themes of isolation, loneliness and friendship.
For years, Stewart has been trying to weave her now-deceased grandmother’s past as a World War II nurse into a novel or story. She is the inspiration for character Margaret, and Margaret’s scrapbook of memories that figures so prominently into her story is exactly like one Stewart’s brother found after their grandmother died.
The plot for this book began with the idea of a woman who may or may not have killed her husband. Stewart still had thoughts of her grandmother and the war in the back of her mind, so she settled on a contemporary novel with a historical backstory. “Somehow in my mind, these two ideas merged and that’s where the novel came from,” she says. “Then of course I had to make a lot of changes to the actual events of the war experience because I had to give it a more dramatic narrative.”
For drama and a mood of mystery, yearning and sadness, Stewart borrowed from Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, which alternates between a first-person narrator telling a story and a third-person character who’s listening. She re-read the book during her writing process, which often centers around finding what she calls a “role model” for each book. “I’ve done it for a long time,” she says, “this idea that you apprentice yourself to another writer through the reading, and I definitely emphasize that in teaching.” (She currently teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Cincinnati.)
As for the setting, Stewart says she sets her books in places that evoke a certain feeling. For her, Sewanee is about isolation, loneliness and being in retreat. “It made sense to me to put it in the place that feels in many ways removed from the rest of the world,” she says. Aside from attending retreats at Rivendell Writers Colony, she also spent a lot of time with her paternal grandparents who lived near there.
She had already written a draft of the novel when she went to Sewanee in January of 2014. The visit inspired an especially dramatic scene in the novel where Jennifer loses her son in the fog. “I spent a year up here as a visiting writer once and I had forgotten how dramatic it is when the fog comes in and just covers everything,” she says.
Silence. She takes a long breath, slows her heart, changes her tactic. She walks backward instead of forward, falls silent herself, stays very still. Waits. Droplets kiss her skin. A small wind shivers the bushes and branches and there is the sound it makes and nothing else in this muffled world—no color, no bright spangling noise. This is what it is to vanish.” – Jennifer, “Carrasco”
Her character of Jennifer also spends a lot of time walking and hiking, giving her time to reflect on her life and forge a friendship with another woman named Megan. Stewart says she put Jennifer in some of her own favorite spots and overlooks like Greens View and the campus road that leads to a huge 40-foot cross. “I just like to go there and sit and look out over the valley,” she says.
While Jennifer is isolated in her little house across the lake, she still has Margaret’s curiosity to contend with. Stewart says Margaret has chosen to be by herself for all these years and doesn’t really face her own loneliness until Jennifer shows up. “Because she feels mortality approaching, there’s an urgency to this last-minute desire to make a connection that she might not have if she were 20 or 30 years younger,” Stewart explains. “One reason why she says things that maybe are not as nice or does stuff that people might not do otherwise is because she has a sense of her opportunities lessening, so she has a willingness to cross boundaries.”
I am personifying the desk. Am I so lonely I’d like it to come to life, and sing and dance with the silverware, like in a fairy-tale cartoon? No, that’s not right. Loneliness is not my problem. My problem is restlessness, forever and ever, amen. I’m restless. I want something to happen, though it’s been quite some time since anything happened to me.” – Margaret, “Don’t Leave Me”
Stewart also creates a fragile friendship between Jennifer and Megan — and their two children who end up in the same class at school. She says that like Margaret, Jennifer has also missed out on making vital connections in her life due to being wrapped up in her dysfunctional relationship with her husband. “Part of the conflict of the novel is of course between the impulse to withdraw and the impulse to connect,” she says. “In an ideal world, I think Jennifer and Megan would be friends and Jennifer would get to stay there and that relationship would be a very important one to her.”
We won’t reveal whether Jennifer gets to stay in Sewanee or not — Margaret and her sleuthing ways will uncover that mystery for the reader — but Stewart says she always tries for a little bit of happiness at the end, even if it’s bittersweet.
We chat with Leah Stewart Friday, July 17, from 1-2 CST (2-3 EST & 11-noon PST) using the hashtag #southernlit. We also have one copy of The New Neighbor to give away courtesy of Touchstone. You must participate in the chat for the chance to win; U.S.-only entries please.