Short Takes

By Barbara Fisher
Globe Correspondent / February 13, 2011

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Shamus Rahman Khan, whose wealthy immigrant parents sent him to St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., returned 10 years after graduation as a teacher and sociological researcher. His many perspectives — as a minority student in a rich WASP school, as a teacher interacting with his students, and as a researcher observing his subjects — gave him unique access to understanding the American elite.

He watched as a range of students — the wealthy, the middle class, the working class, the female, and the minority — found their places in the school. Finding one’s place “means learning the relentlessness of hierarchical relations (from whom to talk to at a cocktail party to which couches are yours to sit on), the endless and often obscure rules that have forever been a part of elite institutions.” Khan discovered that the different groups inhabited their places with greater or lesser comfort and tension. The wealthy and secure students fit in with little effort, while the others had to learn to manage a variety of distinctions and contradictions. Khan’s most interesting conclusion is that the essential attitude that the elite have toward the world is ease. They arrive at St. Paul’s with an ease of privilege and an indifference to work, and they then cultivate these attitudes. Their world is defined for them, although not for others, by possibilities not constraints. Khan’s objectivity turns to pessimism as he describes the result of greater diversity, which he finds “does not mean mobility and it certainly does not mean equality.” He concludes, “Ours is a more diverse elite within a more unequal world.”

Clara Driscoll and her girls worked for the Women’s Department of Tiffany Glass and Decorating Co. at the turn of the last century. In this responsible reimagining of Clara’s life, the group made windows, mosaics, and lampshades as well as clocks, candlesticks, and plaques. For their delicate and dedicated work, performed under many male-dictated restrictions and prohibitions, they received small pay and smaller security. Clara, who originated the idea and the designs for the iconic nature-based leaded glass lamps — the dragonfly, wisteria, trumpet vine, lotus, squash blossom — received no credit for her idea, her designs, or their execution. Although the beautiful shades were in demand, the girls who labored to make them were expendable. Clara fought for her girls against the powerful male forces arrayed against them, declaring and championing women’s right to work in the arts. Clara had to fight not only to express her artistic talent but also to fulfill her feminine nature. She and her girls, prohibited from being married, had to choose between work and love.

Susan Vreeland, as a scholar, needs to be true to her sources and, as a novelist, needs to invent dramatic action and bold character. Thus the real Clara was cautious as a businesswoman, an artist, and a negotiator for women’s rights, while the fictional Clara is daring and even passionate in her emotional life.

This slender novel reads like a fairy tale. Unnamed characters wander, remain, or refuse to leave a beautiful, lost landscape. The land is an ancient Sardinian town, ringed by mountains, overlooking the sea. The characters, referred to as grandmother, grandfather, papa, and the Veteran are moved by strong unexplained passions. In direct unadorned language, the tale is told looking backward from two generations in the future.

Grandmother, the heroine of the tale, is beautiful with lustrous dark hair and a luscious white body. She is considered mad by her family, consumed by a kind of love folly. She is about to be sent away to a sanitarium when the start of World War II allows her to stay at home. After the war, she marries grandfather, a man she doesn’t love.

Apparently unable to have children, she is sent to a spa to cure her illness and allow her to become pregnant. At the spa she meets the Veteran, who awakens her to herself and to love. “She had been told that she was like someone from the land of the moon, it seemed to her that she had finally met someone from her own land.’’ The romance is brief but beautiful. She returns to her husband, becomes pregnant, bears a son, and believes herself blessed to have known passion. A final letter from the Veteran puts the tale in a new perspective and raises the grandmother from fantasist to artist.

Barbara Fisher, a freelance writer who lives in New York, can be reached at

PRIVILEGE: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School By Shamus Rahman Khan

Princeton, 248 pp, $29.95


Random House, 432 pp., $26


Translated, from the Italian,

by Ann Goldstein

Europa, 114 pp., paperback, $15