August 31, 2006
Self-obsessed professor faces upheaval
in his orderly world
by Martha Woodall
The Natural History of Uncas Metcalfe may be Betsey Osborne's first novel, but the magazine journalist has pulled off an astonishing feat. She's written a compelling, elegant tale of nuance and loss with the confidence of a fiction veteran.
The story centers on Uncas Metcalfe, a self-absorbed, 65-year-old botany professor at the fictional Wright University in Upstate New York, who relishes his orderly and unchanging life. While he is more than comfortable inhabiting the groove he has worn smooth over the years, he is discomfited by the changes he observes around him.
It is the early 1980s, and the genial, close-knit farming community of Sparta, where Metcalfes have lived for generations, is in decline. Family-owned businesses are being driven out by cheaper chain stores sprouting on the outskirts of town. Shifting tastes have brought a bagel shop to the white-bread town. And students from a nearby liberal women's college are showing up on Sparta's staid streets with piercings, spiky hair and alternative lifestyles.
"The physical upheaval and near abandonment of the heart of Sparta over the last forty years were in sharp contrast to the occasional hiccup in his own life, which was absorbed with little fuss by the resilient stasis he had achieved."
Since his boyhood, Metcalfe has been fascinated by plants and has photographed them, trying to capture the essence of each species. "Years ago, when he had first become interested in botany, he'd begun to photograph different species at Poplar Creek, the Metcalfe summer place on Iroquois Lake. He would take several shots of, say, a tiger lily or a mint plant, hoping to get at least one that articulated the identifying marks of a particular specimen — the spots of the tiger lilies or the jagged edges of the mint plant. This would be the photograph of record."
A little fusty and old-fashioned, Metcalfe can't help correcting the grammatical mistakes in the conversation of others. But he is so preoccupied with himself that he is oblivious to the emotional needs of everyone around him. He may be an expert at spotting the details that enable him to identify every plant in the woods and fields around Sparta, but he is clueless when it comes to deciphering human behavior.
Abruptly Metcalfe's world is thrown into tumult. First his bicycle is stolen. Then his carefully ordered routine is upended when a table laden with books falls on his wife, Margaret, injuring her leg.
The freak accident at a book sale sets off a chain of events that prompts Metcalfe to quarrel with his daughter, withdraw from his wife, and obsess over a kiss glimpsed decades earlier.
Metcalfe, cast by Osborne in the role of an aging and self-obsessed hero, is tested by a series of trials - both real and imagined. A former student with a long-held grudge surfaces and confronts him. The professor finds himself tormented by memories of a year he and Margaret spent in Cambridge early in their marriage when he was completing a fellowship at a botanical museum. And even though Margaret has been injured, Metcalfe insists on throwing the family's large, traditional holiday party.
A pair of young women Metcalfe encounters outside the bagel shop help him deal with the obstacles and — unwittingly - prompt him to reconsider his own nature.
Osborne has sprinkled her narrative with classical allusions: Metcalfe keeps an office in the Meneleus Building in downtown Sparta. Wright University is located in Laconia. And if Metcalfe is a stand-in for Meneleus, Margaret figures loosely as his Helen of Troy.
It all adds texture to Osborne's keenly observed character study, but The Natural History of Uncas Metcalfe needs no embellishment. This rewarding novel stands on its own.
Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789
or at firstname.lastname@example.org
July 2, 2006
The ebb and flow of ordinary life. In her first novel, Osborne creates characters you care about.
by Sam Coale
This fine first novel by Betsey Osborne, who lives in Cranston, is deceptively plain. The prose calls no attention to itself and unwinds from episode to episode, incarnating the details and emotions of ordinary life as they pass before the reader's eyes.
Uncas Metcalfe, a 65-year-old botany professor who lives in a spacious and welcoming house in Sparta, N.Y., with his wife, Margaret, is suddenly smitten with a 19-year-old woman named Alex who seems more open and free-spirited than anyone he's known.
At the same time, the Metcalfes' 22-year-old daughter Fauna has moved back to Sparta with her husband and three children, and she is pregnant. Father and daughter are at odds with one another in a relationship that's as tense and uncertain as Uncas' growing relationship with Alex is relaxed and promising.
The Metcalfes have lived in Sparta for generations, but Uncas is the first in a long line to opt for an academic rather than business career. His family heritage is a proud and worthy one, and he loves the small-town life.
Margaret has injured her leg and comes home to bed. Uncas suddenly remembers a kiss she gave a friend of theirs years ago, and the memory rankles. Together they plan for their annual Christmas extravaganza, a Metcalfe tradition.
Someone steals Uncas' bicycle, which leads to a series of threatening confrontations, past tales of death and duty, and the possibility of unforeseen and unsettling consequences.
Osborne keeps her story firmly implanted within Spartan existence. She establishes a quiet rhythm of habit and routine that continues unabated, as Uncas begins to wrestle with a sense of traditions breaking down, self-doubts opening up, and relationships that seem to curdle and shift.
Everything goes along so smoothly that you're jarred by the twists and turns of Osborne's tale. Decorum is shattered, then restored, leaving Uncas befuddled and hesitant. Has he really been "Lord Reticent Taciturn" all his life and missed the nuances and subtleties of those closest to him? Is his memory fading? Who's responsible for his unease and distracted state of mind?
Osborne writes effortlessly and wisely, plumbing the troubled depths of the seemingly unruffled surface of "ordinary" life. Her novel sneaks up on you, catching you unawares, and creates rich, many-layered characters you come to know and appreciate. Uncas Metcalfe's life unfolds naturally, yet it mesmerizes and tantalizes in its accumulated power and delight.
This is an auspicious debut by a new and very promising writer.
Sam Coale lives in Providence, and teaches at Wheaton.
Online at: http://www.projo.com/books/content/projo_20060702_uncas.145589a.html
The hero of Osborne's incisive debut novel is a glacier of a man. Rooted in his small upstate New York hometown of Sparta, like the five generations of Metcalfes before him, 65-year-old botany professor Uncas is a man for whom change is not an option. Having achieved a "resilient stasis," Uncas is as unwilling to accept the "physical upheaval of the heart of Sparta" as he is the "big-city prices for glorified bread" at the new bagel shop; so when Margaret, Uncas's wife of 40 years, suffers a leg injury that keeps her bedridden, Uncas loses the only buffer between his outmoded worldview and reality. The impact of his chronic stoicism on his loved ones reveals itself to Uncas when the younger of his two daughters, Fauna Fletcher, returns to Sparta with her husband, Doug, and their three children. An unlikely friendship with a rebellious teenage girl and the threat of a disturbed former student also serve to bring Uncas closer to understanding his family and world. Though Uncas's dedication to tradition can seem extreme, Osborne establishes a genuine sense of history and caring in Uncas's familial relationships with just a few well-chosen words.
by Donna Seaman
Osborne's graceful minuet of a novel, her first, is set in the 1980s in a small, floundering town in upstate New York. Uncas Metcalfe, a botany professor famous for his strictness, is proud of occupying land his family has held since the 1600s, but he has grown rigid and resistant to life. When things turn chaotic after his wife is injured in an accident, and his youngest child, Fauna, pregnant with her fourth child, moves back to Sparta with her out-of-work husband, Uncas thinks he "might have fared better as a tree." Already unhappy over how much the town has changed, worried about his marriage, and blind to others' needs and preoccupations, Uncas is unprepared for the bizarre and threatening behavior of a disgruntled former student. Osborne's concerns are gratifyingly complex, the predicaments she orchestrates unusual and suspenseful, her humor lithe, and her insights into what signifies strength and what indicates weakness are keen and provocative, adding up to an empathic and finely modulated drama reminiscent of works by Gail Godwin, Jane Hamilton, and Anne Tyler.
In Betsey Osborne's debut novel, The Natural History of Uncas Metcalfe (LJ 4/1/06), an elderly man finds his bike stolen, gets lost on his way to his office, meets a young woman named Alex, and finds out that his wife has been injured. What follows is an absorbing, nimbly portrayed tale of his self-investigation. LJ talked to Osborne about her inspiration for this refreshing new work.
Osborne, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, has given us a powerful first novel about love, betrayal, family, and hometown. The novel presents a six-week slice in the life of Uncas Metcalfe, an aging botany professor who lives in his hometown of Sparta, where his family once owned a prominent factory. On the momentous day his story starts, he overshoots his office building on the way to work and ends up at the new bagel shop. As if this lapse in attention weren't enough cause for concern, he soon receives word that his wife was hurt when a table collapsed at the library book sale. And this is the day that Fauna, his 22-year-old pregnant daughter, is coming home with her unemployed husband and three children in tow. The absence of his hospitalized wife and the resurgence of the difficult father-daughter relationship put Uncas in a contemplative mood, and he recalls a time 30 years ago when he believes his wife betrayed him. Meanwhile, his bicycle is stolen, his office is vandalized, and he's threatened by a former student who believes the professor wronged him in the past. Yet Uncas perseveres, emerging as a splendid character. Highly recommended for popular fiction collections.
Syracuse, New York
May 7, 2006
Using Family Roots, Osborne Captures Small-town Life in New Book
by Laura T. Ryan
The title character in the new novel The Natural History of Uncas Metcalfe; (St. Martin's Press, $22.95) comes from a family whose roots trace back five generations in a small, once-thriving town in Upstate New York.
So it really comes as no surprise that Betsey Osborne — of the Auburn Osbornes — wrote it.
"I grew up in Auburn, as did my father and my grandfather and my great-grandfather," Osborne says. "And my great-great-grandfather came to Auburn. They did farm machinery."
That's sort of like saying Starbucks does coffee.
The D.M. Osborne Co., at the turn of the last century, was one of the largest manufacturers of farm equipment.
Osborne's great-grandfather was prison reformer, newspaper founder and Auburn mayor Thomas Mott Osborne. He later sold the farm company to International Harvester. A statue of him stands in front of the city's police station.
That's just one of the nuggets Osborne borrowed from her own life to give texture to her protagonist. A statue of Uncas' grandfather stands in the town square of fictional Sparta.
"Just the idea of growing up with a statue of your relative in this little town — it was sort of unusual," Osborne says.
Osborne's grandfather was Lithgow Osborne, a state commissioner of conservation and an ambassador to Norway. And her father, Frederik R.-L. Osborne, a former publisher of The Auburn Citizen, was the founder of Auburn Cablevision, which was sold in 1997 to Harron Communications, then again in 1999 to Adelphia Communications. Now retired, her father still lives in Auburn and last year published a children's book, The Adventures of Tilly."It was really important to capture this idea of a small town," Osborne says, who now lives in a small Rhode Island town with her partner, Madeleine Stein. "Sparta ... is much smaller than Auburn, but it's really based on my observations of Auburn. And how everyone knows who Uncas is, walking around, and what's sort of happened to those kinds of towns. I call them the towns that time forgot."
She also modeled the fictional town library after the Seymour Public Library.
"It was one of my mother's favorite places, and it was where I learned to read," she says.
Osborne, 49, studied English at Harvard, then moved to New York to study creative writing at Columbia. She wrote for The New Yorker, then became a senior editor at Vanity Fair. She remains a contributing editor there but devotes most of her time to fiction.
"I can't tell you how thrilling it is," she says. "It's amazing, and it's something I've wanted for just ages and ages."
Reviews have been mostly glowing, too. Publishers Weekly credits Osborne for establishing "a genuine sense of history and caring." Booklist called the book a "graceful minuet of a novel."
Laura T. Ryan can be reached at email@example.com or 315-470-2271.
Auburn, New York
May 7, 2006
Osborne novel unique, insightful
by Diane La Rue
Even if you don't know her personally, you'll probably recognize the name Betsey Osborne. Yes, she is related to the man, Thomas Mott Osborne, whose statue stands proudly in front of the police station on North Street.
Osborne grew up in Auburn, and her father ran The Citizen newspaper. One day his bicycle was stolen, but the thief abandoned the bike when he realized he couldn't reach the pedals, set to Osborne's tall stature. A newspaper cartoon about this incident hung on the Osborne refrigerator for years. This cartoon inspired Betsey to write her first novel, “The Natural History of Uncas Metcalfe.”
Uncas is a resident of Sparta, a town that greatly resembles a smaller version of Auburn. Readers will enjoy picking out local landmarks spread throughout the book. (Even the Osborne statue makes an appearance.) He is a 65-year-old professor of botany at the local college and a perfect example of the absent-minded professor. He enjoys his work, loves his wife, Margaret, and is a good citizen in his community.
But Uncas is a bit of an “odd duck.” He keeps his feelings to himself; so much so that his family refers to him as “Lord Reticent Taciturn.” Uncas is more comfortable with his plants than with other people. His wife, Margaret, is an outgoing, popular woman in the community, but at times she can be very cold to her husband and children.
Things start to go awry for Uncas when his Margaret suffers an accident that keeps her bedridden. Uncas suddenly loses his buffer between himself and everyone else and is forced to interact with people. On top of this, his daughter, Fauna, her husband, Doug, and their three young children (with another on the way) move back to Sparta.
Uncas hires two young women, Hannah and Alex, whom he met at the local bagel shop, to help him care for his wife.
He grows particularly close to Alex, and she gets him to open up to her about an incident that occurred between him and Margaret when they were first married.
At the same time, someone steals Uncas' bicycle. The bike is spotted tied to the top of a swing set at Lincoln playground. When Uncas and Alex retrieve the bike, a note from the thief falls to the ground.
The note is hostile, calling Uncas some nasty names and accusing him of not listening to people. Uncas is totally bewildered as to who may have done this, but in his typical reticent manner, he tells no one.
His safe, predictable life has been thrown into an uproar. Margaret insists on throwing their annual Christmas party, which means with his wife bedridden, Uncas must take a more active role in the planning.
A confrontation with the bicycle thief leaves him even more confused and a little frightened.
His relationship with his daughter is strained and the long-forgotten incident with his wife from 30 years ago has come back to haunt him.
The Christmas party is the climax of the book. Uncas is a man from another era, which is personified by the music he requests for the Christmas party. He asks the band to play songs from the 1940s and 1950s. He is not a fan of modern music. When they play an original, modern tune, he finds that he rather enjoys it. A revelation about Alex and Hannah at the party startles Uncas and Margaret, but Uncas surprisingly seems less rattled than his wife by it. Maybe Uncas is finally ready to join the modern world.
Osborne's character, Uncas Metcalfe, is unique and one that is truly unforgettable. The relationship with his wife, Margaret, is very Nick-and-Nora-Charles, expressed with cute, clever expressions, as when Uncas tells her upon leaving the house, “I'm off like the bride's pajamas.”
Yet, underlying their relationship is a lack of honesty. If only Uncas were less taciturn, he might have saved himself 30 years of hidden hostility.
Osborne has done a marvelous job speaking in the voice of a 65-year-old man. Her insights into how men and women relate in a marriage and how parents and children understand (or misunderstand) each other are right on target. Other people have compared Osborne's work to Anne Tyler and I agree; fans of Anne Tyler's work will enjoy this novel. I greatly enjoyed it and give it four stars.
Auburn native Diane La Rue's lifelong goal is to read a book a week.
If you have suggestions, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org