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One Woman’s Journey to Peace and Independence

Kathryn Bromwich's antagonist Laura never devolves into a superwoman but is instead a strong, flawed human being.

Eleanor J. Bader May 12, 2023

Kathryn Bromwich’s absorbing and lyrical first novel, At the Edge of the Woods, tells a timeless story about fleeing an abusive relationship and finding one’s place in the world.

Author Katheryn Bromwich. Courtesy

To wit: The book presents a once-upon-a-time love story in which Laura, born to a working-class family in Italy, meets aristocratic Paris-born Julien. After a fairy-tale romance, the pair marry and, at first, revel in their defiance of expectation. Joy is abundant as they flout upper-class norms. Years pass, but as middle age beckons, the thrill of rebellion wanes and Julien, now annoyed by just about everything Laura does, becomes abusive. As the torment escalates, Laura fashions an escape plan, and when Julien is away on business, she returns to Italy. After wandering from town to town, she eventually finds a remote, abandoned cabin in the Italian Alps and rents it. She also finds part-time work as a tutor and translator and makes do by living simply. 

Walks in the woods and mountain climbing prove to be healing and give Laura a chance to replay memories and process the relationship’s unraveling. What’s more, she takes great comfort in witnessing the area’s seasonal changes and in tracking the ways temperature and light impact her everyday rhythms and thoughts.

A reliance on laudanum, an opium tincture, also helps, giving readers one of the few clues that this story is not contemporary but is instead set in the early 20th century. (Laudanum became illegal in the United States in 1914; France banned it in 1916; England in 1920. No information is available on Italy’s regulation of the opioid.)

Laura is fully realized and her lived feminism makes her the epitome of graceful resistance.

But then something changes — perhaps the town pharmacist gossiped about Laura’s drug purchases or perhaps someone noticed Vincenzo, a handsome local waiter, traipsing to Laura’s cabin under cover of darkness — and rumors began to circulate. Things escalate further when Laura collapses on the street during the town’s annual festival. Although she is revived by several concerned residents, most townspeople steer clear, not wanting to be tainted by Laura’s solitary example.

Before long, local teens begin to threaten her security, painting denunciatory graffiti on the outer walls of her home and tossing rocks through her windows. Strega, they taunt, witch, for who other than a witch would live in the woods, alone, without the protection of man, a family?

Bromwich is a terrific writer, and her ability to conjure both overt and covert menace is impressive. Likewise, Laura is fully realized and her lived feminism makes her the epitome of graceful resistance. To Bromwich’s credit, Laura never devolves into a superwoman but is instead a strong, flawed human being. 

Additionally, themes involving climate are integral to the story, and At the Edge of the Woods offers an instructive glimpse at periodic and often catastrophic flooding and its impact on the natural world of 100-plus years ago. 

All told, At the Edge of the Woods is simultaneously meditative and unsettling. And while its denouement will likely frustrate readers who want definitive closure, its open-to-interpretation ending allows us to imagine a range of possible outcomes. Yes, Laura will leave the cabin — a victory for the thugs and small-minded villagers — but at the same time she remains unbent and unrepentant. Her life and her choices are hers, and hers alone, and while she is restricted by economic considerations, she is ultimately free of society’s strictures.  

At the Edge of the Woods
By Kathryn Bromwich
Two Dollar Radio; June 2023

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