Like three of Spencer’s previous novels, A Ship Made of Paper is set in the fictional town of Leyden, New York. Modeled on the historic town of Rhinebeck, where Spencer lives, Leyden has three distinct social classes: the old aristocracy of estate owners along the Hudson River, the old middle class of shop owners and professionals, and the affluent, cultured refugees from New York City, approximately one hundred miles downriver. On the surface, it seems the perfect place to live, scenic in all four seasons and needing only four policemen. However, it is a microcosm of the United States during the year of the O. J. Simpson murder trial, when racial prejudices and their consequences are painfully obvious to almost everyone. Even Leyden has its crime spree, when black youths break out of a juvenile home.
Daniel Emerson grew up in Leyden, the son of chiropractors who did everything for him short of showing any love: “they did not childproof their house, they houseproofed their child.” After attending elite schools and earning a law degree from Columbia University, he worked as a civil rights lawyer in the South and did pro bono work for the poor in New York. He joins the white flight, however, when he is threatened and then attacked by friends of a drug dealer whom he has unsuccessfully defended. He returns to Leyden, bringing with him his girlfriend, Kate Ellis, and her preschool-age daughter, Ruby. They have a beautiful country house, which Kate has purchased with proceeds from her first novel and for which he contributes half the monthly payments. Daniel is a sensitive male who shops and cooks and takes Ruby to preschool. Kate is attractive and intelligent. They share witty repartee and a limited commitment: “a pledge to each other to be Swiss bankers of the heart.” However, Daniel finds that he needs more.
As the novel begins, Daniel is happiest driving Ruby to preschool. In her company he experiences “something tender at the center of creation, some meaning, some purpose and poetry.” Unloved as a child, he begins to experience love as a surrogate father. He is fascinated with Iris Davenport, the mother of Ruby’s schoolmate Nelson. In addition to being a loving mother, Iris is a beautiful African American. She keeps up a commuter marriage with Hampton Welles, a banker from a prominent African American family; he lives in New York during the week, and she lives in Leyden so she can pursue a graduate degree at nearby Marlowe College (closely modeled on Bard College).
Daniel’s fascination becomes an obsession as he follows Iris’s car, cruises past her house, and learns the details of her schedule. He takes every opportunity to mention Iris’s name in conversation with Kate, because he likes to think about her but has no reason to think that she would reciprocate his desire. Kate gets suspicious and arranges an evening together for the two couples, an evening that proves disastrous when conversation turns to the Simpson trial, then in progress. Convinced of Simpson’s guilt, Kate exposes the prejudices of her southern upbringing. Later that evening, after she collapses on her bed in a drunken stupor, Daniel drives past Iris’s house. Little does he realize that she is standing at the window, watching his car while Hampton sleeps.
A few days later, an early ice storm hits the area, felling trees, downing power lines, and blocking roads. Daniel manages to drive as far as Iris’s house, where he is to pick up Ruby, but the storm keeps them from leaving. As Daniel soaks in the details of Iris’s life, she confesses that her husband pays no attention to her and that she finds Daniel’s attention strangely flattering. Daniel confesses his love for her, and before the night is out they make love while their children sleep, passionate love such as neither has known before.
They see each other every day until Hampton returns for the weekend, and they come to regard these first days together as “the Rapture.” They are in untenable positions: Iris fears that Hampton will harm her or take Nelson away, while Daniel hates the thought of hurting Kate or, worse still, Ruby. Somehow they continue their love affair, as well as their family affairs, through the Thanksgiving holiday. However, their families are stressed to the breaking point. When they two couples meet again, by chance, at a fund-raiser in late November, their lives are truly broken, changed forever by a freak accident.
The accident is provoked by another love triangle. Ferguson...
(The entire section is 1838 words.)