The Secret Life of Madame Vanderbilt
The Tragedies & Triumphs of a Middle-aged Heroine (a writer's challenging journey towards publication
photography: courtesy Annie Vanderbilt
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“Beyond a certain age, you’re pretty much invisible to a lot of people,” says local author Annie Vanderbilt, 62. But that doesn’t keep Vanderbilt from her firm belief that middle age is the time of life to “let the voluptuous side of living and loving take center stage.”
And that, not surprisingly, is the view of Lily Crisp, the heroine of Vanderbilt’s first novel, The Secret Papers of Madame Olivetti. While reading it, I was tempted to open a long sequestered bottle of pinot noir and sip slowly while enjoying the sunset. There’s something about Vanderbilt’s writing that reminds you to savor the delights of the moment.
The novel ranges from the sensuous south of France to the steamy rain forests of Mexico. And even spends some time here in Idaho, amidst “the dry herbal tang of sagebrush and solitude.” It’s a tale of a middle-aged woman looking back on her life after her husband’s death and trying to figure it all out.
“The places are real. The plot and characters are not,” declares Vanderbilt’s husband Bill adamantly, when I run into him in Atkinsons' market. In fact, the couple has lived in all the beautiful places that serve as settings for the book.
There are, however, a few suspicious similarities between Vanderbilt and her strong, independent heroine. Vanderbilt, like Lily, has a cherubic halo of curly hair and a mischievous gleam in her eyes. “I’d say there’s a part of Lily in me,” admits Vanderbilt. “But she does things that I would never do.”
Like Lily, Vanderbilt’s life has had its share of dramatic ups and downs on the journey towards finally publishing a novel at age 61.
She started writing, she recalls, in fifth grade, having come up with the fictional couple, Mr. and Mrs. Rudolph Pimperidge. “I was always writing the Pimperidge stories about a Southern couple in the early 1900s who drive around in a horse-drawn carriage and get up to mischief,” says Vanderbilt smiling. “I would write a serial every week and read it to the class.”
Later she was off to Radcliffe where the then-Ann Swanson met Harvard student Bill Vanderbilt and began their 40-year marriage. The adventurous Vanderbilts (like the Pimperidges) traveled the world (distracting Annie from her writing.) First the Peace Corps in India, then hiking in Nepal, finally settling on Vashon Island where her creative side was fulfilled as a sculptor, woodcarver and carpenter. Yes, she actually built houses. >>>