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Review: Mystery and humor share the page in ‘The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses)’

Terri-Lynne DeFino

Add “The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers” to your winter to-read pile. With its poignant characters and its light sprinkling of mystery, it’s an engrossing and fun little novel with oomph.

Literary legends live at the titular home, a renovated mansion on the scenic coast, the vision of one of their own now departed. Some residents are ill, while others have simply retired to the splendor of a place successfully designed to evoke their glory days. The able-bodied fraternize in the same cliques, gossip about each other and feed and batter each other’s egos.

Alphonse Carducci, famed for his literary legacy and his hedonistic lifestyle, moves in to die. He’s weary and depressed but slowly gets a second wind with the attention he receives from old colleagues and lovers at the home. And then there’s Cecibel, a young, scar-faced orderly, who reveres him as her favorite writer of all time, shyly befriends him and stirs his passion. “Fame still lingered, overshadowed its failing subject. Alphonse would use that, as he always had, to mold things to his liking. In this tiny corner of so grand a life, the world still rested gently on his palm.” He is moved to write again.

His work in progress about star-crossed lovers in the 1950s soon, much to his chagrin, quickly involves a few of his friends at the home, each taking turns writing a chapter. They attempt to keep the book under wraps. (It’s not kept under wraps from us, though. This second novel is included in serial fashion in the first.)

The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses)” by Terri-Lynne DeFino
William Morrow

Alphonse invests himself in the novel while he wrestles with his past. He was a lover of both women and men, most notably the founder of the retirement home, who was also his mentor. His fellow resident, old friend and lover Olivia, now sneaks outside to take hits of marijuana, the only thing that alleviates the physical pain from her troubled past. Judi is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and is lovingly cared for by Raymond, a face-lifted “brilliant, exquisite and inventive” writer in Alphonse’s opinion. They wrote captivating stories, but their own stories, some purposefully shrouded, come to light in the novel.

Reclusive Cecibel’s story is the most elusive of all. What deformed her face, which she tries to hide with her long, beautiful hair? How did she end up at a secluded home for old people, where she works with the comedic and caring Sal, who is a professional drag queen on the side, and Finlay, not so long ago in prison, who wants to break down her defenses and be her friend?

The Bar Harbor Retirement Home is home to the lot of them, “I burned brightly, and burned out. Isn’t that what we all did? We spent our lives chasing words and stories and rising stars and then one day woke up and realized our best years were done. We’re tired and getting older and there’s no one in our lives outside of colleagues we’ve spent more time with than family who gave up on us years ago,” Judi says. But it’s the once larger-than-life Alphonse, who finds his muse in Cecibel, who is the catalyst for their stories to come out and for their minds to ease. Even his own.

The authors’ lust for life, and in some cases for each other, and their witty repartee add touches of humor to the drama. Moments between Alphonse and Cecibel and Cecibel and Finlay are tender and ring true.

Make your reservation at The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses) for a cozy winter respite.

Amy Canfield would like to retire at such a place, if it were warmer. She lives in South Portland.

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