Updated: Sep 5
by John A. Heldt
Elderly siblings, Bill, Paul, and Annie Carpenter only have each other and their problems left; Bill has just lost his wife, Paul has terminal cancer, and Annie is confined to a wheelchair.
However, when a decades-old myth regarding the existence of a Fountain of Youth that Bill, a folklore professor, dismissed years ago begins to hold credibility, the three decide to start their lives anew…
Transported to San Francisco in 1905, Bill, Paul, and Annie soon settle in, making friends, lovers, and a future even though they know a devastating earthquake will hit the city sometime in 1906…
The Fountain opens Heldt’s new time-traveling trilogy. Having read his Time Box Series*, not only was I looking forward to this fresh journey but also interested to compare and contrast it with Time Box.
All of the Heldt hallmarks are here. His writing has that sublime, understated, almost logical quality that seems effortless yet works very hard to draw multiple, often competing strands of narrative together.
It’s reassuringly excellent and, consequently difficult to put down, but there are enough disparities in plotting and character that make The Fountain intriguing, individual, and quite different from the previous time-traveling novels.
Heldt takes time to build up the characters of the siblings before they jump back in time. Their close, easy dynamic is established early on and each is convincingly portrayed. The reader is given the subtle context of their lives which carries both poignancy and positivity once they are in 1905.
Bill still has a child’s curiosity but is weighed by the twin burdens of responsibility and grief. Paul is lost but resigned to his fate, and Annie is probably the saddest albeit the more stoic one of all three.
As the narrative gains momentum to the siblings taking the plunge, it’s riveting and Heldt measures the tempo just right to avoid frustration, building excitement and apprehension with a well-judged but tense pace.
Once the three jump and land in the early 1900s as a twenty-three-year-old, a seventeen-year-old, and a fourteen-year-old, it makes for compulsive reading as the siblings quickly forge ahead due to luck, circumstance, and charm while navigating tricky questions and the odd slip-up.
The difficulty of placing elderly minds into young bodies could have proved awkward but Heldt manages to retain the personalities that the reader is already accustomed to while still imbuing youthful exuberance and novelty. It reads with utmost plausibility.
The story is gloriously entertaining and, in parts, has a light-hearted feel although the chapters leading up to the earthquake and its aftermath are full of panicky fear and creeping suspense. Heldt is adept at steering the reader through difficult but necessary plot twists. The narrative moves between genres and fairly weighty themes with ease and gentle escapism when actually, the premise of the novel raises some profound questions and some of the events towards the end are heart-breaking.
The other main members of the cast; the Lee family (Cassie and Andy, in particular), and Pauline Wagner are authentic, investable, and thoughtfully developed. As the plot with all its various surfaces, sub-texts, and angles gathers pace it capably and intriguingly lays the foundations for the next two books whilst ensuring The Fountain is a fully rounded, thoroughly engrossing novel in its own right.
As usual, Heldt’s research is impressive. Aside from the meticulous period detail, the level of insight and knowledge of San Francisco in the early 1900s and the earthquake that strikes is fascinating yet seamlessly woven into the Carpenter’s narrative.
Another great book, written with customary verve, enthusiasm, and accomplishment. Bill Carpenter is described in Chapter 16 as “good at spinning yarns”. It’s a phrase that could equally be applied to John A. Heldt. Highly recommended.
*For my reviews and details of the Time Box Series, click here.