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The Aunt’s Story boasts one of the great opening lines in the history of the novel: “But old Mrs. Goodman did die at last.” Following her domineering mother’s timely demise, Theodora Goodman embarks on a lengthy trip from her native Australia to pre-World War II Europe and thence to the United States. Much of the action of The Aunt’s Story is filtered through the increasingly disjointed consciousness of Theodora; hers is a psychological as well as a physical voyage.

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The novel is divided into three sections, each of which takes place in a different geographical locale. The first part, “Meroe,” opens in Sydney with the arrival of Mrs. Goodman’s other daughter, Fanny Parrott, her husband, Frank, and her children, among whom numbers Theodora’s niece and soulmate, Lou. Such empathy exists between them that Theodora obliges Lou with a retelling of the story of her own childhood on Meroe, her father’s estate in the country named for a similarly beautiful place in ancient, mythical Abyssinia. Theodora, the eldest child, is the bane of her mother’s existence: Stiff, awkward, and sallow, Theodora often says and does startling things. Her beloved father seems to understand her, though, and so she enters his world, learning to shoot like a man and to love the land. Unlike Fanny, who is plump and rosy and who perfects piano and other acceptably feminine hobbies, Theodora hones her hunting skills and communes with roses and trees. Following Mr. Goodman’s death, however, Theodora and her mother move to Sydney, where Theodora waits on the old tyrant and enjoys a limited social life that includes meeting a concert cellist named Moraitis. He, like Theodora, sees things more clearly than other people do, and his music stirs her profoundly. This first section of the novel, related mostly in flashback, ends where it began, with Theodora ready to start her travels.

Part 2, “Jardin Exotique,” finds Theodora checking into the Hotel du Midi in the south of France, where she plans to rest from her European tour for some time. Whereas narrative is mostly linear in “Meroe,” it becomes increasingly disjointed during the course of this second section. White relies on surprising combinations of words and fractured syntax to chart the disintegration of both Theodora’s sanity and pre-World War II Europe. Longterm residents of the hotel include General Alyosha Sergei Sokolnikov, a retired Russian military man; Mrs. Elsie Rapallo, a wealthy American; and Katina Pavlou, an innocent young girl traveling with her chaperone. Theodora gets so caught up in the dreams and fantasies of each of her fellow guests that her own identity starts to fade and her grip on reality to retreat; she becomes the General’s sister Ludmilla in his reminiscences of time past and also plays confidante to her Lou-surrogate, Katina Pavlou. Theodora finds herself doing inexcusable things, such as stealing and smashing Mrs. Rapallo’s beautiful, fragile seashell. Tensions between the hotel guests eventually build to a boiling point. Part 2 ends with the destruction of the hotel and many of its guests in a fire.

Theodora survives the fire to make her way to America. In part 3, titled “Holstius,” she rides a train headed west. At an undisclosed stopping point along the way, Theodora gets off the train and continues her journey on foot. As she walks, she discards most of her worldly possessions, including train tickets and personal identification. Eventually, she comes across a shack inhabited by the Johnson family; she gives them a false name, and they provide her with food and shelter. Theodora wanders off again and discovers an abandoned house. She believes that it belongs to a treelike man named Holstius, with whom she discourses about the nature of life. Holstius’ philosophy helps restore Theodora to some wholeness of being before the wellmeaning Johnsons find...

(The entire section contains 1423 words.)

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