Duet for Three Hands

Written by Tess Thompson
Review by Caroline Wilson

Duet for Three Hands is a new novel that explores the nature of love and race in the early 20th-century South. The story is focused on the Bellmont family, an Old South family that has been able to remake its fortune on the back of new enterprise. But beneath the glittering façade there is trouble. Patriarch Frank Bellmont is a brutish drunk, while his wife, Clare, though as kind and loving as she is beautiful, often suffers his wrath. Their children, Frances and Whitmore, are as different as night and day. Frances, a spoiled, deluded beauty who courts scandal at every turn, lures a brilliant concert pianist into marriage. Whitmore is a sensitive dreamer who must hide his growing feelings for Jeselle, his best friend and the family’s black servant girl.

Tess Thompson has created a masterwork of Southern literature. Told from various points of view, Duet for Three Hands is a little slow to start as the various characters are introduced. The addition of Nathanial Fye and Lydia, his eventual protégée, seems nonsensical in the beginning, but all the threads come together by the end. The setting, however, is brilliantly captured, and practically palpitates with the tension of a sultry afternoon. Thompson does not shy away from depicting the cruelty of some Southern whites, but she does not condemn them all as miserable bigots, which is refreshing. While great brutality is often present, it is juxtaposed against selfless acts of kindness and sacrifice, leaving the reader with a full picture of life during this turbulent time period. Lovers of Southern fiction and general historical fiction will find Duet for Three Hands a welcome respite to the glut of beach reads this summer. Highly recommended.