Review: Thomas and Beal in the Midi, by Christopher Tilghman
FSG, 2019. 371 pp. $27
In the early 1890s, childhood friends, now newlyweds Beal Terrell and Thomas Bayly, leave their native Maryland for a new life abroad. Their displacement would be unremarkable, except that Thomas’s father owned the extensive farm and peach orchards on which Beal grew up, as the child of former slaves. Since interracial marriage is illegal in Maryland — and dangerous anywhere in the United States — the couple has chosen France. Or, rather, Thomas has. Beal, though she loves Thomas and has agreed to the plan as the most practical, sensible way to have a life together, hasn’t chosen anything, and therein hangs a tale.
Thomas and Beal in the Midi offers an unusual twist on interracial marriage. Between the two participants, race causes no rifts. Other people construct what they will about the Baylys, often to indulge their bigotry, but their reactions leave no scars. The real problem is that the two exiles have married young; their inexperience makes for growing pains, specifically Beal’s difficulties being a beautiful woman. She’s tired of having men tell her who she is or must be, which is perfectly understandable, especially because that would put her in their power. But Thomas doesn’t do that, so when she lets herself be put upon or even drawn to other men who do, it’s perverse.
True, Thomas does decide, after a few months’ research in Paris, that they’ll move to Languedoc and grow grapes, and, as the man of the couple, he’s expected to be the planner. But the way Tilghman portrays his protagonists, Thomas would like nothing better than to share his enthusiasm, and Beal acts as if she couldn’t care less. Consequently, her rebellion — if such it is — takes the form of permitting approaches from precisely those men who look upon her as an object for their own admiration, a self-defeating and hurtful choice all around.
To be fair, Thomas has a certain reserve about him, a delicacy that keeps him from assuming too much. It can be maddening and charming, both, and one thing about Beal’s secret admirers, they’re not shy about talking. Meanwhile, Thomas has a mild flirtation of his own, looking for the intellectual passion Beal withholds, so the wrong doesn’t go only one direction. But he’s more honorable, with a firmer conscience. I find him far more sympathetic than his wife, who acts like an immature ninny, at times. That’s why I like the novel less than I wanted to.
For all that, though, it’s a beautiful piece of work. Tilghman has a terrific eye for emotional nuance, as in this scene between Thomas and a nun, a contact of the young man’s in Paris:
One thing he did not want to hear was some nun expounding on the challenges he faced, on the barriers Beal would encounter as — he had expected her to use this word and she had — a ‘Negress.’ But of course, expounding on challenges was what she had done. Thomas could only take refuge in the fact that she clearly held him in no higher regard than she did Beal.… When he said he was exploring various possibilities for a career in business, she acted as if this were code for doing nothing at all. She looked at Thomas and saw idleness; she thought he was stupid. He was supposed to think she was treating him perfectly properly, but he was also supposed to feel bad without really knowing why, to go away with a gnawing disquiet. He’d seen this performance from his mother dozens and dozens of times: how perfectly fascinating, she would say.
Compared with many novels, this one has a less-than-busy plot. Yet the writing, which finds unexpected meaning in small moments, fills the spaces with tension. In fact, the last part of the narrative seems rushed, a little, as though the author (or agent or editor?) wanted a quicker resolution, even at the expense of a confrontation or two that need to happen before the reader’s eyes. Nothing like destroying a climax before it starts.
Aside from the marvelous prose, I also like the symbolism. Thomas’s grape-growing experiment comes on the heels of an agricultural disaster, the invasion of phylloxera, an aphid that laid waste to much of France’s grape rootstock. To keep his vineyards alive, he must therefore graft resistant American stock on to what already grows, while uprooting the one hardy local varietal that makes insipid wine, and whose market is glutted. Since Thomas’s father’s peach orchards died off from blight (symbolic of the slavery that existed there), you can take the grafting metaphor in any direction you wish — Beal and Thomas’s marriage; America and Europe; Thomas repairing his father’s mistakes; a rebuilding of tolerance; new life in general.
Having worked for a wine merchant and traveled widely in France, I could have happily read more about the wine business. But Thomas and Beal in the Midi is a pretty good love story, and there’s much to admire in it.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, in which this post appeared in shorter, different form.