“Ellie and the Harpmaker” is a delightful novel about our inability to see the truth in our own lives, especially when it comes to personal relationships. Though this sort of topic is often fodder for angst-ridden tragedies, this one is a heartwarming beach read.
Ellie, the eponymous protagonist, is a 30-ish married woman living in rural England. Though she doesn’t have children, she also doesn’t have a job or seemingly much of a purpose until one day she wanders into the barn of a man who makes harps for a living.
The harpmaker is also about 30ish, devastatingly handsome and autistic. The term is never used, but as the book is told from alternating points of view, it’s strongly suggested that he’s on the autism spectrum.
The author captures Dan’s black-and-white, literal interpretation of the world much like “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.” Dan has a bit of a poet’s soul, so as he’s counting the number of pebbles on the ground on his rambles across the moor, he’s also observing the colors and shapes with lyrical detail. This combined with his utterly-without-guile world view will quickly make the Dan chapters your favorite. You will wish you could know someone like Dan or maybe even be a little more like him yourself.
Ellie’s also a poet, and this plus her growing love of music as she learns to play the harp draws her closer to Dan, though the relationship remains completely platonic. Her husband, Clive, is the antagonist of the novel, thwarting her efforts to learn to play the instrument. In fact, the author may have done her best work creating a character as adroit at emotional manipulation as Clive.
As Ellie tells her story and fills in the backstory of her relationship with Clive, the reader has a dawning awareness of her husband’s true nature (he’s a jerk) and of Ellie’s naïveté at not seeing it, just as it becomes more and more obvious to us that she is falling in love with Dan while desperately chasing after her husband, who is at turns explosive and cold. Dan may miss social cues and subtexts of conversations, but Ellie is also unaware, in her own way, of how people operate. This book reminds us, in a beach-read way, that we can all be a bit blind at times.
Wendy Migdal is a freelance reviewer in Fredericksburg.