Clara and Merritt
Seattle of the 1930s and 1940s is the setting of the coming-of-age love story of Clara Hamilton and Merritt Driscoll, who are loosely modeled after Donahue’s parents, both of whom died when he was young. Clara works at the Christian Science Reading Room, though she’d rather be sketching and painting; that’s how she meets Merritt, in fact—one day she abandons the Reading Room temporarily to go buy more art supplies, only to run into Merritt, a recent naval recruit, coming out of the Reading Room upon her return. He’d come in to take shelter from Seattle’s never-ending drizzle, and once he discovers this lively young woman, he plans his downtown sojourns around her location. Their friendship and love grow in fits and starts, as they are separated by misunderstandings, World War II, and family obstacles.
Chapters alternate between their perspectives, allowing the reader to know both characters better, and providing historical context for the art world and the labor union struggles of the time. The Seattle history is spot-on, with scenes set in the Frederick & Nelson department store, at the docks, and in other local haunts. The subplots, however, of the rival longshoremen’s unions, blackmail, and illness make for a complex narrative and reliance at times on stereotypes. Some of Donahue’s chapters from Clara’s point of view also ring false, especially in his skipping over any internal struggle with the sexual mores and customs of the time. This reader was more enamored of the places than the people in the novel, and would recommend this book for exactly that: fifteen years of vivid, accurate description of Seattle landmarks, politics, and local events, which happen to be surrounded by a middling love story.