In high school I had a dream one night where I was in some city that was unknown to me. I woke up feeling like this was the place I needed to be. There was something about the physical setting of the dream that just gave me a groove. I could never quite put my finger on what it was that made that particular dreamscape so special. Years later after I moved to Washington, DC, I realized that DC, or something very much like it, was the city in my dream a decade earlier. A dense but picturesque walkable neighborhoods filled with old brick buildings, pockets of green space with statuary and monuments tucked everywhere, and lots of vibrant street life. Although there are plenty of reasons to complain about DC, from an aesthetic and urban design perspective this really is the embodiment of that nebulous and lovely image that was tucked somewhere in my brain all those years.
Well, Felicity Hamilton has a similarly nebulous and lovely image in her head.
A picture began to form itself in Felicity’s mind of two rows of symmetrical doorsteps, of first-floor French windows which opened on to diminutive balconies, of a sunny little street with scarlet omnibuses roaring past one end and a vista of trees seen facing the other. Sometimes it was so clear that she could almost read the name on the corner lamp-post; sometimes it faded to a blur or the view-point changed so that only one house was visible. Neat little area railings, a brightly painted front door with a shining brass knocker. It opened and showed a narrow passage-hall, lighted by a window on the turn of the stairs; and in that window there came the green light of sunshine filtered through leaves. ‘That’s the house we’re going to live in,’ she said to herself. ‘But where did I see it?’ Where could she have been going when a momentary glimpse from a taxi had shown her that passage-hall and that window? And why had she forgotten all about it at the time, only to find it lodged so obstinately in her memory now?
As luck would have it, Felicity does finally find Greenery Street again, and she and her fiancé Ian Foster manage to find a place of their own there to move into after they are married. It would be wrong to say that Greenery Street is the background for the story of this young couple’s new life together. The street itself, is as much a character as they are. Just as we learn about Ian and Felicity’s personalities and foibles, so too do we learn about the foibles and personality of the street itself. With little exception the street is home to young couples making their way and their new lives together. Staying in Greenery Street just long enough for the first baby or two to come along and require a move to more spacious accommodations.
It would be equally wrong, however, to say that the book is actually about Greenery Street. It certainly plays a central role, but there is plenty going on in the life of the newly married Fosters to keep one’s attention. Money, housekeeping, families, the ups and downs of a couple getting to know each other; although the circumstances may be very different, the themes are somewhat universal. More than once I saw elements of my own marriage (and our house hunting for that matter) illuminated in Greenery Street. Thankfully, I believe that modes of interpersonal communication have improved immensely since the 1920s so that many frustrating situations can be avoided, but some of the same relationship pitfalls seem unavoidable 90 years later.
Although some of the situations and challenges seem a little twee and of a time and class foreign to most of us, the story is still relatable and quite a lot of fun. Mackail’s narrative style is eclectic at times and his voice is sometimes front and center. Like a narrator holding a large story book relating the action to the audience just before the scene dissolves to depict the action at hand with the narrator fading from the screen. It is a playful omniscience that allows the street to become a character, and I found it, and the book itself, charming and humorous.