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Assisted living for authors - 'The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (and Their Muses)'

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There’s a big difference between literary fame and literary greatness.

There are plenty of writers who are great without being famous and more than a few who are famous without being great. A very specific confluence of circumstances is required for an author to achieve both. But even the greatest, most famous writers come to the end of their story.

Terri-Lynne DeFino’s novel “The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (and Their Muses)” (William Morrow, $15.99) takes a speculative look at what that ending might look like, creating a vividly detailed place where literary giants might spend their final days, swapping stories and generally accepting that the heady heights of their younger days are permanently behind them.

In the late 1990s, Cecibel is an orderly at the Bar Harbor Home for the Elderly, a retirement home set up by literary legend Cornelius Traegar in an attempt to give his fellow wordsmiths a place uniquely their own in which to spend their twilight years. Despite the physical and emotional scarring, Cecibel is a beloved part of the community; the many writers and editors find her to be both a competent caregiver and fine company.

But Cecibel is thrown for a loop when a new resident arrives at the home (nicknamed “the Pen” for obvious reasons). Alfonse Carducci is a true giant in the world of letters, one of the most decorated authors of his generation and the most famous resident ever to move into the Pen. He’s also Cecibel’s all-time favorite writer – one to whom she has been devoted for most of her life.

Carducci is very much at the end of the line when he arrives, but being in the presence of old friends like Olivia Peppernell, a former peer (and lover) helps a little. Still, it’s the friendship that blooms between him and Cecibel that truly reinvigorates him. Yes, he is old and tired, but as he spends more and more time with the lovely, damaged orderly, the itch to create comes back.

And he’s not the only one.

Doors long thought forever closed begin to creak open once again, letting loose the words and emotions and stories – truthful and fictional (and sometimes both). Some are inspired to embrace a future they once believed did not include them, while others begin to consider letting go of pasts that haunt them. And at the center of it all is the unlikely friendship between a broken young woman and a sick and aging legend.

It’s interesting to consider what happens to writers when their stretch in the sun finally passes by. Even the greatest of the great will eventually fade into the shadows. “The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers” offers a charming, compelling glimpse at what might happen to such luminaries.

The writers who populate the Pen display precisely the sort of quick and acerbic wit that you would expect to get from aging wordsmiths. These are people who defined and redefined literature for their generation – that power doesn’t just vanish when you reach a certain age. The jokes and jibes are well-crafted and genuine, creating a sense of reality that informs the dialogue.

The central figures – Cecibel and Alfonse – serve as dual focal points for the narrative, providing the polestars by which the story is navigated. The quiet complexity of Cecibel, the constant avoidance of certain uncomfortable truths … she’s fascinating. Meanwhile, Alfonse hides behind a façade of bombast and bluster, all the while uncomfortably coming to terms with the looming specter of his own mortality. His works might be immortal, but he himself is not.

(It’s at this point where the story-within-the-story needs to be addressed. Over the course of this novel, a new story begins to take shape; said story is shared with the reader intermittently throughout the course of the book. We can talk about how delightfully meta it is to have a work in progress being written by the writers who are characters in a book about writers – and it really is – but the truth is that what could have been a gimmicky device actually turns into an engaging tale in its own right. No need to discuss the specifics – who writes it, what it’s about, that sort of thing. Just know that it’s very good and a vital part of the larger narrative.)

DeFino has a wonderful ear, finding ways to craft dialogue that feels both true to the characters and true to life – a surprisingly difficult feat with which plenty of otherwise great writers struggle. She builds thoughtful, rich inner lives into her ensemble, as unafraid to point out her characters’ flaws as she is eager to celebrate their merits.

“The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (and Their Muses)” is an ideal summer read, breezy enough to be consumed lightly while still providing narrative and character depth. To paraphrase an old adage, old writers never die – they just fade away. What Terri-Lynne DeFino has done is give us a look at a place to where those writers might fade.

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