When asked whether she shared the view of writer Lauren Groff about Florida as “a monkey bread state…that isn’t one thing but many things all jammed together,” Margaret Bradham Thornton said she had to disagree.
“That would not be the way I would describe Florida. Perhaps because I love its natural beauty and wide open spaces so much,” Bradham Thornton said. “For example, the Everglades National Park with its hundreds of untouched mangrove islands or the beaches in the early mornings or the late afternoons when the kitesurfers make the wind visible. I love taking Southern Boulevard across the state through the rural land with its dirt roads and fields of sugar cane, or inland up to Ocala with its rolling hills and live oak trees, or driving up the coast to Georgia especially at dusk and watching the way the sun settles across the flat expanses of land.”
As a Palm Beach resident, Bradham Thornton has been a firsthand witness of the almost ethereal beauty that surrounds a lone beach in the first light of morning, which is perhaps why her descriptions of the beaches in Bermeja, Mexico, and one of the settings of her new novel, “A Theory of Love,” are amazingly descriptive. She moved to Palm Beach in 2008 from Bedminster, New Jersey, drawn to the beauty of the town.
She credits her career to the reading she did in school, from Shakespeare to Viriginia Woolf. “Reading widely and in-depth is, I think, necessary for becoming a writer, or at least it was for me,” said the Princeton alumna in an email interview.
In addition to writing novels, Bradham Thornton also edited and annotated Tennessee Williams’ “Notebooks,” a record of his life from 1936 until his death in 1981. Researching the book led her all over the world to interview the people who knew Williams best — Paul Bowles in Tangiers, Gore Vidal in Ravello, Italy, Warren Beatty in Los Angeles.
She received the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year bronze award in the category of autobiography and memoir.
“In the 10 years of editing and annotating Tennessee Williams’ ‘Notebooks,’ I felt I came as close as one could to understanding his creative process,” Bradham Thornton said. “He left so much behind, and in addition to his letters and notebooks, there are over 3,000 manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts. I saw how he taught himself how to write, and I discovered the point at which he found his voice.”
Regarding her novels, Bradham Thornton admits to a noticeable difference between her debut, “Charleston” and her most recent work, “A Theory of Love.”
“Writing for me is exploring questions that interest me,” Bradham Thornton said. “In ‘Charleston,’ the question I tried to examine was, ‘Why does home never let you go?’ Also, I had two characters who were trying to find a way back to each other while exploring the culture of one of the oldest cities in the South. In ‘A Theory of Love,’ the question was, ‘What does it mean to love someone?’ while exploring two characters who are trying to stay together, with all of the pressures and strains of modern life
The title of her first novel is self-explanatory, and partially biographical since Bradham Thornton is a Charleston native. But “A Theory of Love” is much too broad and has too much meaning to attempt speculating on its meaning, and she admits it wasn’t her first choice.
“The working title for this novel was ‘The Coast of Lost Colors,’ but the sales and marketing team at Ecco/Harper Collins was not in love with it,” Bradham Thornton said. “So they asked me to consider coming up with another. This new title relates to the metaphor I introduce at the end of the novel comparing love to the theory of entanglement, the idea that two particles that have been close can be separated by vast distances and yet what happens to one, happens to the other. I think that analogy works for paternal or maternal love. The question I wanted to examine in this novel was, ‘Does it apply to romantic love?’”
The novel’s plot and characters are incredibly complex and at times difficult to dissect, which perhaps can also be said of any theory that tries to explain love. The protagonists, Helen and Christopher, meet in Bermeja when they casually run into each other on a stone road leading away from the beach. After a whirlwind courtship, they marry without truly knowing each other well enough, which later explains Helen’s misgivings about Christopher’s world as a top financier and his own mistrust about his reporter wife’s inquiries into his past life.
Bradham Thornton said that she was walking along the shore in Palm Beach when she had the first inspiration for the story that would become “A Theory of Love.”
“One early morning I came across a seagull in the dunes that was in distress,” Bradham Thornton said. “I approached it thinking it had a broken wing, but as I got closer, I realized it was dying. Its body was breaking down, and it could barely move. I understood the best thing I could do was to leave it in peace, so I backed away. And as I walked away, I started thinking about how most animals live and die alone and how different the human condition is. How humans want to be with someone. Marriage or some form of partnership extends across very different cultures around the globe. So that led to me thinking about what does it mean to love someone and that is the question I tried to explore.”
The plot, along with Christopher and Helen’s marriage, veers between Bermeja, London, Majorca, Morocco and Havana. Some of these are places Bradham Thornton has either lived in or visited. The multiple settings are prominent characters in the story, perhaps as much as Helen and Christopher, owing to Bradham Thornton’s vivid descriptions of the landscape.
Even though “A Theory of Love” was just published in May, Bradham Thornton is already working on her next book. “The idea came from the research I did for “A Theory of Love,” she said. “I visited the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents) in Florence, Italy. An orphanage for abandoned children, which operated from the 1440s to the 1970s. One of the early benefactors of this orphanage donated important paintings to it because he felt orphans should grow up surrounded by beauty.
“This idea struck me and made me consider the question of what role, if any, beauty plays in our lives and was there a connection with beauty and evil,” she said. “So, while the novel I am currently working on has a contemporary setting, this idea or question provides the foundation for it.”