In this thoughtful and heartfelt memoir, Katharine Smyth pays tribute to two great influences in her life: her father and Virginia Woolf. Smyth parallels her family story with Virginia Woolf’s story, both personal and literary. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) had the most profound effect on Smyth. The Ramsay family’s annual trip from London to the Isle of Skye is not as much about their activities as it is about their relationships and their thoughts. So, too, does Smyth recall her father in terms of their relationship.
Smyth’s British-born father was a promising architect who came to Harvard for graduate studies. He fell in love with an Australian woman. They married and settled in Boston. They had a summer home on Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island where her father docked his boat. He loved to sail.
It was not a perfect life, however. Mr. Smyth was an alcoholic (despite multiple stints in rehabilitation). He was a chain smoker. He lost his job and began a succession of new enterprises in design and construction. Some were successful and some were not. He was stricken by bladder cancer that was treated, went into remission, and eventually metastasized. He died when Katharine was in her early 20s.
Katharine remembers a scene in To the Lighthouse: “’All the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be,’ says Mr. Ramsay…and Mrs. Ramsay will repeat the phrase as she sits knitting in the sitting room.” Katharine comments, “to think that Mrs. Ramsay’s light is burning, to think that my father’s light is burning; that they survive in me, in you; that even in their absence they will guide us…A fantasy, yes, but its relief and happiness are real.”
Book clubs will find rich material for discussion. (If you wrote a memoir about your father what characteristics would you focus on? Has an author had a strong, years-long effect on you? Which of Virginia Woolf’s books is your favorite?)
Nann Blaine Hilyard retired in 2014 after a 39-year career administering small-and medium-sized public libraries in Texas, Kansas, Maine, North Dakota, and Illinois. She has served on many ALA and division committees, including the Executive Board and Council. She is currently president-elect of the Retired Members Round Table. She is convener of the ALA Biblioquilters, whose collaborative quilt projects have raised more than $25,000 for library school scholarships.