Monday, December 8, 2014

Willa Cather Reading Week: A Lost Lady (1923)

For Willa Cather Reading Week over at heavenali, I read Cather's 1923 novel, A Lost Lady. The novel centers on the complex Marian Forrester, wife of one of the last railroad aristocrats, Captain Forrester. Marian is beautiful, but twenty five years younger than her husband. They live in the declining Nebraska town of Sweet Water, and compared to the local people, their lives in the big house are lavish and exciting.

Cather presents the story of Marian through the eyes of local boy, Niel Herbert, who is twelve when the story begins. Niel and his friends are playing in the marsh near the Forresters' home when a bully, Ivy Peters (described as being eighteen or nineteen), appears and does something unspeakable to a bird. In an attempt to put the bird out its misery, Niel instead falls out of a tree and breaks his arm. He's taken to the Forrester house where Marian plays the role of nurse, and Niel becomes somewhat infatuated with her.

As Niel grows older, his life becomes more intertwined with the Forresters, and even with the time he spends with Marian, Niel can't seem to grasp that his idealized view of her is not realistic. Marian is lively and brightens every room she enters, and she is the perfect hostess. She appears to love her husband and enjoys doting on him, but when Niel discovers that Marian has a lover, he becomes disillusioned.

As Captain Forrester loses his fortune and his health declines, their way of life is greatly altered. Before, they only spent the warmer months in Sweet Water, but now they spend the year there. Marian does her best to cope with these events and even has to clean the house since they can't afford the servants they had before. Once the Captain dies, Marian continues to entertain, but the standards have changed. The guests are no longer her husband's important friends. Marian's lover is now Ivy Peters who has become an attorney.

Niel hangs on to his idealized view of Marian, and in that way, she is always lost to him. He never really grasps the difficulties that Marian faces in the harsh world of Sweet Water. He only seems to love the part of her that is the wife of Captain Forrester, where she is genteel, loving and charming.

It's been awhile since I've read anything by Cather, and I found A Lost Lady to be a remarkable novel and a reminder of the brilliance of Willa Cather. The writing is beautiful and at times powerful. 

I highly recommend A Lost Lady.

If you have thoughts on the novel, I am interested to know.


  1. I picked this up after finishing my main WCRW read, Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Cather's portrayal of character is masterful, and her prose style can be very beautiful while still serving the story. I'm thinking to feature one of my favorite quotes in a few days. Enjoy the week!