Book Review: ‘Glassworks,’ by Olivia Wolfgang-Smith

glasswork, By Olivia Wolfgang Smith

I broke a bottle while reading Olivia Wolfgang Smith’s debut novel Glasswork. She was holding a book in one hand and a container of hair oil in the other, and the bottle slipped, bounced off the sink, and cracked. I smiled at the irony as I pushed the untimely shock away from the novel. In “Glassworks” everything breaks. The conversation is punctuated by smashed dishes, disfigured bodies, and bared spirits. In this story, you must learn how to survive destruction.

“Glassworks” is a family panorama tale told in four novellas, each looking over the shoulders of the previous generation. We follow his 1910 Agnes. Her Son, Edward, 1938. His daughter Novak, 1986. Their story is one of destruction and reconstruction, much like the glass each character handles in some way. They are all working on similar questions. How do we form our selves, what defines our legacy, and what needs to be destroyed to create it?

The book begins with Agnes Carter, a wealthy donor to Boston University, hiring naturalist and glassblower Ignaz Novak to create a scientific model. In private, Agnes is haunted by her violent and money-wasting husband. Her story introduces a motif that runs throughout Glassworks: the split self. Agnes is a woman split between happiness and duty. She quietly falls in love with Ignas, who swings from glorious moments to severe mental illness. Their relationship is defined by their proximity to beauty and brutality, both construction and destruction. Wolfgang Smith’s writings sing in this tension.

When Ignas is stung by a bee, they retrieve the crushed carcass and Agnes begins painting it. A sketch of a bee gave rise to a small glass model that has been passed down from generation to generation. It makes for a powerful metaphor. “Bee: A danger far beyond its size, but at the cost of self-annihilation.”

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