Peter S. Beagle's "A Fine & Private Place" is not a novel that I would ordinarily pick up to read. Though I have enjoyed reading other novels written as "magical realism", I would not intentionally choose to read one set in a cemetery.
I am not sure whether I liked this book or not. I know that I got a lot more out of the book from our class discussion about it than I got from my reading of the book. My classmates brought up many different aspects of the book that cam from their personal experiences. After all, all of one's life is seen from one's own perspective unless we communicate and relate to other people.
I did not see this as the typical "ghost story" or the typical "romance novel" and it is not creepy or sappy. As a fellow classmates said, the characters complement each other: the reclusive, half-alive Rebeck and the vital Mrs. Klapper; Laura, who never had a life, and Michael, who threw away his life; even the noisy, busy city and the quiet, timeless cemetery complement each other.
Reading this book while meeting in a cemetery for a class about the cemetery was a very good match. It caused me to relate the cemetery in the book to the landscape of Spring Grove. I could picture the cemetery, Rebeck, Mrs. Klapper, Laura, and Michael in my mind's eye as I was reading. I could visualize the cemetery streets, monuments, and plantings and could feel the quiet, peaceful atmosphere.
I see this book first as a love story, in an unique location, with two love stories evolving over the length of the novel: Rebeck and Mrs. Klapper; Michael and Laura. And these are two very different kinds of love.
In the first love story, Mrs. Klapper had lost her balance wheel with the death of Morris and Rebeck had lost his center when he felt that his purpose in life was lost. Finding each other brought Rebeck back to the verge of living and gave him renewed purpose and brought Mrs. Klapper into balance again. This is a romantic love. I enjoyed following the development of the relationship between Rebeck and Mrs. Klapper. I wanted them to become involved. They seemed like two people who deserved a second chance at living and they seemed very real to me.
The second love story, of Laura and Michael, is a very different kind of love. In this post-life state, there can be no physical love, so this is love for the sake of love, love beyond the physical, a forever love. It was more difficult to become involved with the romance of Michael and Laura. It felt contrived to me, as if the purpose of that part of the story was for the author to make a point. I could see several points that he may be trying to make, that it is never too late to commit to someone, or love is beyond death, or nothing is as important as relationships.
This is also a story of transformations: Rebeck transformed from living a half-life in the cemetery to the beginning of a new life in the living world; Mrs. Klapper transformed from a widow who had lost her focus to a completed person through her relationship with Rebeck; Michael transformed after death from a shallow, self-centered character who threw his life away to a caring being who embraced his existence in love for Laura; and Laura transformed from one who never had a meaningful life to one who finds meaning in the afterlife in her love for Michael. And the cemetery is a quiet, private island surrounded by the larger city.
My favorite character is the Raven. He has a sense of humor and a sense of the ridiculous. I really enjoyed when he had his snit-fit and decided he was never going to fly again. I think he is the most complete character in the book. He is himself and everything he does stays in character.
The only nod to religion is a turning point in the story. When it was proven that Michael caused his own death by ingesting poison, his body could no longer be buried in "consecrated ground" and had to be moved to another cemetery with unconsecrated ground. (I think it interesting that my classmates did not connect this point with religion, though it is a Roman Catholic tenet that a suicide may not be buried in consecrated ground.) This plot twist came from nowhere. As the spirit has to stay in the same cemetery as the body (in the "rules" of the story), Laura and Michael will be separated forever unless her body can be moved also. The plot to move Laura's body is instigated by Laura and involves Rebeck, the night caretakes, and Mrs. Klapper. It is the final impetus that gets Rebeck out of the cemetery and will reunite Laura with Michael.
I think Peter Beagle would have written a different book as an older man. It may not have been as innocent and beguiling a story. Perhaps the side stories would be more fully developed, such as the youth waiting at his tombstone for his visitor or Morris and the large edifice he never wanted. There may have been more spirits in residence.
Thought I do not plant to read the book again, but I would like to see and hear the musical based on "A Fine & Private Place".