An email from the publisher offering me a free review copy of this book at once intrigued me: it purported to be a memoir set in the 1960s, but in the publicity photo, the author looked to be in her 40s. Whatever she was on, I wanted some of it!
Although I had a mile-high to-read stack, when the book arrived, I couldn’t resist its elegant yet provocative cover and title, which accurately convey the tone and content of this true-life recollection.
It’s an intimate yet tasteful account of a month-long affair, very well-written and especially well controlled when the reader realises by the end what a profoundly affecting episode this was in the author’s life.
The Summer of ’63
In the summer of 1963, as a 20-year-old art student, Marcia Gloster spent 31 days in Salzburg, Austria, studying painting under the tuition of 37-year-old Bill Thompson, a charismatic artist who took advantage of his position to court many young girls, although already married with a mistress. Warned by her friends that she risked becoming just another of his trophies, Marcia cannot help herself but become involved with this deeply charismatic artists who resonates with her on lots of levels and teaches her so much about herself – and not just in terms of bedroom techniques.
We know from the title that this is going to be a brief affair, which adds tension to the read, built in that short space of time there develops a much more profound relationship than a fling, and its impact continues to affect her sense of self and her destiny for the rest of her life.
Marcia Gloster had the foresight to keep detailed diaries of the events at the time, which is how she manages to recall it in such detail, aided by correspondence with her contemporaries at the art school. She appears to have written this book both as closure and as a celebration of what they had together, including every possible detail. This sometimes slows the pace – so many conversations in bars and the art school cafeteria – but that’s what comes of it being a memoir rather than a novel. If fictitious, it would most likely have been edited down to make it make it a little terser and tenser,
It’s not only the impact of the relationship on Marcia’s life that make it a compelling coming-of-age story, though the author is transformed in that memorable month from naive, sheltered and privileged all-American girl, unaware of her own appeal to men and of her inner passion and strength, to the much sager, less conventional and more experienced young woman who leaves.
Compelling Portraint of a Dying Era
It’s also a portrait of the end of an era, with a certain wistfulness about it of Edwardian, pre-First World War memoirs. Her memorable month occurs when the world is on the cusp of revolutionary artistic and social change. She mentions in passing strange, as yet untested newcomers on the scene: Andy Warhol, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. John F Kennedy’s presidency is at its peak – he’s assassinated a couple of months are her return to the States.
She is astonished by the ease with which “Europeans” drink wine and beer, treating her own new habit of drinking white wine as outrageous. (I guess it had been root beer all the way till she stepped on the plane.)
The events also takes place before the era of free love enabled by the availability of the contraceptive pill. That should remind us to realise just how remarkable it was for Marcia to have a sexual liaison with an older man then. It’s not just Marcia’s life that will never be the same again.
The descriptions of Salzburg are also interesting. There are reminders that Second World War will have been a still fresh experience to everyone there, and she’s wary of echoes of Nazi anti-Semitism and nationalism. As Americans, she and her more conservative, conventional roommate Kate are not entirely comfortable.
It also adds a new perspective on the city of Salzburg, at that point most famous for its Mozart connections. Not long after Marcia’s stay, The Sound of Music would put a world spotlight on the ancient city. The Sound of Music. Marcia Gloster’s experiece of the city is a whole lot racier than Julie Andrews’ Maria’s!
Helping to add depth and significance to the story are the closing chapters, written in the present day and explaining why Marcia Gloster finally went public about a secret that she had guarded so closely for many decades: her experience still has the power to move her to tears 40+ years on. Although she’d lost contact many years before with her Salzburg lover, she still needed to find some sort of closure and also to celebrate a series of events that have made her who she is today.
More than One Woman’s Memoir
Overall, this is much more than one woman’s story of a memorable love affair. It is a celebration of the rare and revolutionary relationships that change the course of one’s life, and which transcend the bounds of conventional love affairs and marriages. Anyone who has had the good fortune to have a similar experience in ther own lives (and yes, I think it IS good fortune, despite all Marcia’s tears) will be captivated by this book, which will serve as a celebration of their own special loves, many of which, I suspect, will remain forever secret.
I’ll close with a few asides:
- I heartily approved of Bill Thompson’s choice of music which became the soundtrack to their affair: Canteloube’s Songs from the Auvergne, which I chose as the music to be played in the delivery suite as my only child was born
- Marcia believes in the power of coincidence, and some interesting ones occur not only in the book but in its making: one of the key characters (not her lover) died on the day it was published
- She has nothing but her mother’s genes to thank for her youthful looks!
Oh, by the way, it turns out that the author’s youthful looks are down to great genes. No painting in the attic, then.
More About Marcia
Marcia Gloster went on to build a very successful career in art and design, and you can read more about her at her website: www.marciagloster.com.
You can order 31 Days from Amazon here and from all good bookshops.