The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (and Their Muses)

Written by Terri-Lynne DeFino
Review by Valerie Adolph

The title alone draws us in, and the book does not disappoint. And what a deal! Two novels in one, completely different in style and voice.

The outer story is that of patients (or is it inmates?) in a home for retired famous writers beginning in 1999. The inner story, set mostly in 1959, could have only come into being in the presence of a muse. Tensions abound in this inner story, full of passion—licit and illicit—and fears of discovery.

Tension in the foundation story is simpler but several leagues deeper and more complex. Will the principal writer, Alfonse, live long enough to finish the story? Or perhaps it is: Will the story last long enough to extend the life of the writer? The other writers (and readers) unite to try to sustain Alfonse.

A memorable cast of characters inhabits the retirement home. We meet the impressive but perpetually buzzed Olivia along with Switch, who grows lavender and other herbs. Central is Alfonse, close to death, loved and admired by many, lover of many but unable himself to find a true love. Caring for them are the gentle murderer, the drag queen, and Cecibel, who has lost half her face in a devastating accident for which she blames herself.

The clear reality of imminent death is always present but mellowed by love made manifest in imaginative and unexpected ways. Cecibel focuses this as she becomes the muse of a writer she had never dreamed of meeting. The ordinariness of care for the elderly is transformed by the unique life experiences interacting at Bar Harbor. This contrasts sharply against the immediate passions of the second story—a fiction within a fiction.

This is a book to feel as much as to read. I found in it an intense texture of enchantment and reality. Recommended.