Literary Corner Cafe

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book Review - Classics - Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

Note: This review contains information that some readers may consider plot spoilers. Because the book is ninety-two years old, and a masterpiece of the Western canon, I felt most readers would be familiar with the story even if they hadn’t read the book, but to those who aren’t, and don’t want to know any plot details, it might be best to exit stage left now, i.e., skip this review.

Though on its surface, Death in Venice seems to be a fairly straightforward story of homoeroticism, it’s actually a dense, richly layered tale of repression, obsession, and decadence. Thomas Mann rarely, if ever, wrote anything that was straightforward. Yes, Death in Venice is, most certainly, a story of homoerotic obsession, but like a series of nested Russian dolls, just when you discover one aspect of the story, you realize there is another...and another...and another. In fact, Death in Venice is so rich and multi-faceted, so highly symbolic and polarized, that the definitive word regarding its many interpretations will, no doubt, never be written.

The character around whom Death in Venice revolves is Gustave von Aschenbach, a fussy, repressed, aging German writer who is possessed of a high degree of Apollonian discipline, bourgeois respectability, and dignified solemnity.

One fine day in May, von Aschenbach, who is a highly complex and complicated man, sets out from his home in Munich, overtired and overwrought, for a stroll in that city’s famed English Gardens. As he crosses a cemetery at sunset on his way back home, he encounters an apparition that is “baring his long, white teeth to the gums,” an apparition so horrifying it sends von Aschenbach into paroxysms of terror and hallucinations of “a tropical quagmire beneath a steamy sky—sultry, luxuriant, and monstrous” that is filled with “beds of thick, swollen, and bizarrely burgeoning flora.”

Recovering, von Aschenbach quickly retreats from the specter’s gaze with the desire to travel…to Venice, of course. Although highly touted as a city of beauty and romance, Venice is also, to those who know it well, a dank and sinister place, its calli and rii filled to overflowing with darkness and decay. Von Aschenbach’s hallucination could well have been a description of Venice, herself.

Nevertheless, von Aschenbach journeys, not without some difficulty, to the Lido, Venice’s famed beach island, where he takes up residence in the luxurious Hotel des Bains (still operating today, and yes, Mann, himself, did spend time there in 1911, but in the company of his wife and brother).

Von Aschenbach believes that he’s been successful in trading chilly, northern decorum for the sunnier Dionysian hedonism of the south. What von Aschenbach doesn’t realize, of course, is that Venice isn’t Capri or Sanremo or Viareggio. The Adriatic is far less welcoming than the Mediterranean, and von Aschenbach has journeyed, not to a life-affirming, sun-washed landscape of health and restoration, but to a Stygian underbelly of disease and death. Though it doesn’t rain, the sun rarely really shines, and Venice proves to be oppressive, almost suffocating, and the shallow, stagnant canals stink with an ever-growing cholera epidemic of which the public is largely unaware.

Soon after his arrival in Venice, as von Aschenbach is taking tea on the terrace of his hotel, he finds his attention drawn to three girls and a boy sitting at the table next to him. It’s the boy, Tadzio, a young Polish youth of fourteen, who captures von Aschenbach’s attention, for Tadzio’s beauty is arresting. Stunning, pale, and translucent, Tadzio is almost lifeless in his resemblance to classical Greek statuary. Tadzio appeals to von Aschenbach’s highly developed aesthetic desires, but even though the older man and the young boy never exchange a word, let alone a touch, it isn’t long before von Aschenbach’s aesthetic desires give way to those of a definitely more erotic nature. As Venice falls victim to cholera, von Aschenbach falls victim to obsession, and the fate of both city and man are sealed.

There has been so much discussion through the years regarding the “real” meaning of Death in Venice. Is it a rather uncomplicated story of erotic obsession, or is it, as Mann, himself said, a story about “the artist’s dignity?” Was von Aschenbach in love with Tadzio or simply the “idea” of Tadzio? Can the story even be taken literally? Did von Aschenbach really travel to Venice and become obsessed with Tadzio or was the entire episode, subsequent to von Aschenbach’s hallucination in the cemetery, simply a product of his fevered and overwrought imagination, an imagination that had been pushed so deeply into subconsciousness as to cause grave emotional illness? There have been very erudite and convincing arguments for and against all of the above and more. I have my own opinion, which I’m not going to offer here, but I will say that Death in Venice is one of the most densely layered narratives anyone can ever hope to find. I think it’s to Mann’s credit that each reader of this novella will no doubt come away from it with a more or less different interpretation.

Mann’s writing style is truly unique. He’s detailed, yet oblique. He’s moody and atmospheric. He never tells us anything directly, preferring instead to only hint at what’s going on, making his reader work doubly hard to understand. Most importantly, Mann never used “filler.” Every word he wrote is there for a purpose, though Mann was definitely not a “spare” writer. Quite the contrary; his prose is extraordinarily voluptuous. Although his work moves along at a moderate pace, Mann’s narrative is sensually languid. The example below, in which Mann describes the sunrise, will give some idea of what I mean:

Awe of the miracle filled his soul new-risen from its sleep. Heaven, earth, and its waters yet lay enfolded in the ghostly, glassy pallor of dawn; one paling star still swam in the shadowy vast. But there came a breath, a winged word from far and inaccessible abodes, that Eros was rising from the side of her spouse; and there was that first sweet reddening of the farthest strip of sea and sky that manifests creation to man’s sense. She neared, the goddess, ravisher of youth, who stole away Cleitos and Cephalus and, defying all the envious Olympians, tasted beautiful Orion’s love. At the world’s edge began a strewing of roses, a shining and a blooming ineffably pure; baby cloudlets hung illumined, like attendant amoretti, in the blue and blushful haze; purple effulgence fell upon the sea, that seemed to heave it forward on its welling waves; from horizon to zenith went great quivering thrusts like golden lances, the gleam became a glare; without a sound, with godlike violence, glow and glare and rolling flames streamed upwards, and with flying hoof-beats the steeds of the sun-god mounted the sky.

Some people are going to wonder why Mann didn’t simply write: The sun rose. If you’re one of those, then you’ll probably find Death in Venice too heady and dense for your taste. If you’re a person like me, who’s in love with words and all they can do, especially in the hands of an artist and a craftsman par excellence, then you’re going to love Death in Venice and want to reread it from time to time. It does contain many, many references to Greek classicism, and readers unfamiliar with that subject should keep a reference handy.

I’ve read Death in Venice in the original German, in French, and in English, in H. T. Lowe-Porter’s translation, the translation that was the standard for many years. Some years back, however, a new translation become available. Michael Henry Heim, a UCLA linguist, has given Mann’s prose a lighter, more modern, less stuffy feel. The passage I quoted was taken from the Heim translation, which I read recently, but I really can’t recommend one translation over the other. While Heim’s is more modern and limpid, Lowe-Porter’s, I feel, captures more fully the essence of the original German. In the end, it’s just personal preference.

In closing, I would like to mention Luchino Visconti’s film adaptation of this novella. Yes, it is the very quintessence of “sumptuous,” and to those of us familiar with Death in Venice, it is a delight for the senses. If you’re not familiar with the novella, however, you’ll gain nothing by watching the film instead, beautiful though it is (it contains no dialogue). And really, the book is only seventy-three pages long, and it’s definitely one of the masterpieces of the Western canon. No one should pass it by.

Although interpretations of Death in Venice vary, and no doubt will continue to vary, it is one of the most haunting and beautifully wrought works in all of literature. Various interpretations aside, in the end, we are all left with the image of the young, beautiful Tadzio beckoning to the morbidly ill von Aschenbach, inviting the older man to join him, inviting him at last, to partake “of the voluptuousness of doom” and “the promising immensity of it all.”


Recommended: Definitely. This book is a masterpiece of the Western canon, a hauntingly beautiful novel of obsession and decadence filled with much symbolism and many unforgettable images. It should be read by everyone at least once. And don't forget the Luchino Visconti film once you've read the book.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Book Review - Nobel Winning Authors - The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek

Although it was first published in 1986, I read The Piano Teacher in 2004, after author Elfriede Jelinek’s Nobel Prize win. I was still living in Switzerland part of the time, and I bought the book there and read it in German, since I was still concerned with keeping my German fluent. It wasn’t until very recently that I read the English translation. This really isn’t a book to read twice – it’s too dark – but a group of friends were discussing it, and they were discussing the English translation. I felt I needed to read that, too, in order to really participate in the discussion. And, in the seven years since I’d read the book, I’d forgotten some of the details.

The Piano Teacher is harrowing and intense, and it explores a side of life and sexuality that is so dark, most people will, I think, find it a little disturbing or off-putting. This is a book that repulses, while at the same time pulls you deeper and deeper into its dark and tormented heart.

The Piano Teacher centers around Professor Erika Kohut, a brilliant pianist and distinguished Schubert scholar at the Vienna Conservatory. Erika is a fortyish, repressed spinster type who still lives at home with her elderly mother. (Her father went mad and died in an asylum.) Despite Erika’s intelligence and talent, she’s never developed a life of her own, and she hides a dark and disturbing secret: Erika Kohut revels in sado-masochism and self-mutilation. Though legally sane, Erika knows she’s only one step away from madness, and she relishes that one step, wanting to experience it over and over and over again, if for no other reason that to prove to herself that she is still in control. This love of the thin line that separates the sane from the mad is, I think, the key to understanding Erika and the dark forces that drive her.

At the Conservatory, Erika rules her students with an iron hand. Instead of encouraging them, even the ones who show great promise, Erika belittles them, instead, and tells them they’ll never be real pianists. She also seems bored with her duties, and one gets the distinct impression that she considers her mediocre students beneath her and feels threatened by the ones who are truly brilliant. This is a teacher who could never win a popularity contest, and her harsh and demanding ways, of course, really don’t bring out the best in her pupils. Clearly, Erika relishes the sadistic control she exercises over her students.

We get some glimpse into why Erika feels she must be so controlling and disciplined at the Conservatory when we see her interact with her mother, a domineering woman who is something of a sadist herself, a woman who feels she must be Erika’s “inquisitor and executioner all at once.” Erika’s mother gave up much in her life to encourage her daughter’s musical talent and now she expects to be repaid. She expects Erika to hand over, not only her paycheck, but her soul as well. And while Erika and her mother trade slaps and punches, they also trade kisses of an erotic nature, and night after night, they share the same bed.

Most women of forty would simply leave and pursue a life of their own, but Erika is far too damaged and tormented for that. She finds some solace in voyeurism and in the sleazy video booths that show very badly made pornographic films. “Mother,” of course, knows nothing about Erika’s more kinky side. She lives under the illusion that her daughter is a fine, upstanding member of Viennese society and that her dignity and scholarship would never come into question.

Enter Walter Klemmer, a handsome, young engineer with a talent for, what else? The piano. And whose music? Schubert’s, of course. Over her protestations, Klemmer eventually becomes one of Erika’s pupils, and he proves to be something of a prodigy himself. He shines, and he also falls in love with Erika, despite the twenty-year gap in their ages. When the two embark on an affair, it’s an affair totally dictated by Erika. They engage in sexual relations, but only in the manner in which Erika wants to engage in them. And there is nothing “loving” about the love Erika and Walter make. It’s perverse, and it’s twisted, for Erika insists on, not the open and giving nature of true love, but the role of a victim, one who’s beaten, one who’s defiled, one who’s tormented. If Erika’s piano lessons are exercises in sadism, her lovemaking is an exercise in masochism.

What makes this book a masterpiece, and it is a masterpiece, despite its extraordinarily disturbing qualities, is the relationship between Erika and Walter. Although Walter tells Erika, “You repulse me,” and “You should know what you can and can’t do to a man. The playing field must be level,” he nevertheless finds himself more and more attracted to her because she is, quite simply, awakening his own repressed sado-masochistic tendencies and desires.

Whenever two people become involved – as lovers, as friends, as student and teacher, as doctor and patient – there is some struggle for power, no matter how subtle. One person always emerges emotionally dominant, though not, perhaps stronger. This simply can’t be helped since people are not, as Walter would like, equals. Trouble comes when one is very much stronger than the other or when the “game” they’re playing is one fraught with danger. Erika and Walter prove to be more equal than Erika might have liked or was prepared for, and much to Walter’s dismay, he proves to be as apt a pupil in the bedroom as he is in the music room. He differs from Erika in one respect, however – he doesn’t know when to stop. He doesn’t have Erika’s control.

I think most readers will initially feel some sympathy for Erika, though she’s not at all likable. She didn’t, after all, grow up with the best of parents or in a family that could, by any stretch of the imagination, be called “nurturing.” As the book continues, however, it becomes more and more difficult to feel any sympathy for Walter, primarily because he refuses to share in the blame for the monster he becomes. As he tells Erika:

You have to admit it. You’re partly responsible. You can’t delve around inside people and then reject them.

No, you can’t, or at least you shouldn’t, but Walter’s ultimate revenge is too violent, too much of a betrayal for him not to shoulder some of the blame himself. Had he only admitted that he liked what Erika was awakening in him, maybe I could have understood him, but his refusal to accept any culpability at all makes him the “bad guy” of this book, no matter how charming and “normal” he seemed initially, and no matter how easy and convenient it would be to shift all the blame to Erika or her mother. And they, of course, are not blameless.

The second half of this book, which revolves around Walter and Erika’s affair, was, for me, more disturbing than the scenes of self-mutilation that came before. Many readers, I think, will be disturbed by the explicit descriptions of the tormented sexual encounters, some so much so, that they won’t want to finish the book. This isn’t, however, a book about sex. It’s a book about control and domination, about how control kills, maims, and eventually destroys beyond redemption. And shockingly, to the readers who are also music lovers, and I am one, (well, I have to qualify that, I love classical and baroque music), this is a fascinating exploration of the link between music and madness. Even though, as music lovers, we might like to deny this link, in our heart of hearts, we know it exists. The greatest musicians were obsessed, and anyone who’s studied music seriously knows the commitment to rigorous discipline that must be made. Even Schubert, the musical genius Erika and Walter both revere, died a madman, something Erika never tires of telling Walter. This isn’t to say that all musicians are madmen, only that the potential for madness exists in a higher degree than it does in most “ordinary” persons.

And, although this book may seem to present very explicit depictions of domination and control, the dynamics between Erika and her mother, Erika and her students, and Erika and Walter are really quite subtle. All of us know that our deepest passions, and I don’t mean just sexual passions, if wholly aroused, might very well spin out of control, and this both attracts and repulses some of us. Most of us, luckily, never have to grapple with the question of whether or not we could control ourselves at our most base. Erika is, admittedly, an extreme case, but still, she touches a chord within us.

The Piano Teacher is an extraordinarily bleak book, and its characters are people who have traveled far beyond the point of redemption. Yet they remain so very human, and that, I think, is what is so disturbing about this book. The fact that something and someone so bizarre and so violent could also be so overwhelmingly human comes as a bit of a surprise. At times I felt totally repulsed by the book, but I understood why, and I was able to look at it objectively and realize that it is truly a masterpiece of the interactions of people who teeter on the very brink of madness.

Like it or hate it, and I really think most readers are going to hate the book, it certainly isn’t forgettable, and I have to applaud its author for not shying away from uncomfortable subject matter. I know some readers will certainly be put off by the explicit descriptions of sado-masochistic sex between Erika and Walter, but had Jelinek failed to describe those scenes, we would have never known how far both Erika and Walter allowed their basest instincts to emerge. I’m definitely not a fan of books with explicit sexual descriptions. I think when sex is involved, it’s best to leave the details up to the imagination of the reader, but in all fairness to Jelinek, her readers would have never conjured up what she delivers. In order to fully understand the very damaged Erika and the dark forces she unleashes in Walter, one simply has to know the details, like it or not.

After reading this book in both the original German and in English, I have to say I think the English translation, by Joachim Neugroschel is excellent. The sentences seemed clipped and terse in English, but the book had that feel in the original German as well. Much of the book reads like the example below, which is taken from its beginning:

The piano teacher, Erika Kohut, bursts like a whirlwind into the apartment she shares with her mother. Mama likes calling Erika her little whirlwind, for the child can be an absolute speed demon. She is trying to escape her mother. Erika is in her late thirties. Her mother is old enough to be her grandmother. The baby was born after long and difficult years of marriage. Her father promptly left, passing the torch to his daughter. Erika entered, her father exited. Eventually, Erika learned how to move swiftly. She had to.

If you like to read Freud or Jung, especially Freud, and you want to explore the darkest, most dangerous recesses of the human psyche, then you will probably find The Piano Teacher to be a masterpiece, much as I did. (Though I admit, I do not read Freud or Jung, and I’m not terribly interested in psychology. I am, however, interested in human beings.) However, this is not a book for the faint of heart or those who like to live under the delusion that the world has been spun from pink cotton candy. If you want to stay away from darkness, from torment, from violence and despair, even in your reading material, then you probably wouldn’t like this book. And though you may admire the author’s extraordinary talent, this book elicits shock, horror, revulsion, and ultimately, fear. As Jelinek shows so clearly, the line that separates the sane from the insane is a very thin one, and as one approaches it, one hears, not the sweet music of Schubert, but a very discordant melody, instead.


Recommended: To readers who are interested in the psychology of madness. The book is extremely dark, and some readers might find the scenes of violence and aberration disturbing. This is a book for people who loved D.M. Thomas’ The White Hotel.

Note: Elfriede Jelinek won the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature. This is the only work of hers I've read, and I honestly don't think most persons would include her on a list of the "world's best" authors. The Nobel Prize, as we all know, has a definite political component, and this book was cited by the Nobel committee as expressing "the absurdity of society's clich├ęs and their subjugating power." Sadly, I don't know a lot about Austria and its literary traditions, though I spent a lot of time there when I lived in Switzerland. I do know the Swiss always said Austria was "very old fashioned." I just know Austria has wonderful pastries. :)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Book Review - Burnt Mountain by Anne Rivers Siddons

I’m not generally a fan of Anne Rivers Siddons’ work simply because the subject matter of her novels doesn’t really entice me, but I’ve always thought she was a very gifted writer. Burnt Mountain, however, promised to be a very different book than say, Peachtree Road. I knew, though, as soon as I read Burnt Mountain’s Prologue that I was going to have certain problems with the book. I chose to read on, hoping I was wrong.

The Prologue revolves around Thayer Wentworth and her husband, Dr. Aengus O'Neill, as the two are awakened very early one morning by a group of children bound for summer camp. Now Thayer Wentworth is no stranger to summer camps. It seems as though all the meaningful events – both good and bad – of Thayer’s life revolved around a summer camp. Her father’s family owned a cottage on Burnt Mountain, and Thayer’s parents even honeymooned there. Thayer always wanted to believe that the honeymoon was the stuff that dreams are made of, but it was on Burnt Mountain that Thayer’s mother’s dreams were crushed rather than fulfilled. A beautiful Southern woman with “ambitions,” Crystal Thayer married a man from a prominent family for more than love, and he disappointed her when he told her that his ambitions didn’t extend any further than remaining headmaster of the all boys Alexander Hamilton Academy in Lytton, Georgia, a school founded by the Wentworth family. Thayer’s mother promptly turned her attentions from her husband to her eldest daughter, Lily. Lily was a girl who shared the same hopes as her mother; she was a girl Crystal could mold and live through vicariously.

Thayer, who was more of a tomboy, had a strained relationship with her mother, though she idolized her father and her Grandmother Wentworth. Although Crystal didn’t enjoy the days in the beautiful Greek Revival house along the river in Lytton, Thayer thought they were idyllic. When tragedy came into Thayer’s life, it was her Grandmother Wentworth, not her mother, who pulled Thayer through. And, it was at camp, Camp Sherwood Forest, that Thayer met her first love, Nick Abrams, a boy Crystal couldn’t stand. Difficulties arose, however, one of them truly life changing, and when Nick and his father left for a European holiday, Nick and Thayer were parted forever. Or almost. (Not really a spoiler.) Once again, it was Grandmother Wentworth who pulled Thayer from the depths of despair, that time by sending her to college in Tennessee. Thayer realized that while one door was closing for her, another one was opening and she remarked as she left her home, “And Detritus nosed the car out of our driveway and toward the Great Smoky Mountains and the rest of my life.”

It was at college that Thayer met and fell in love with a charismatic Irishman, Dr. Aengus O’Neill, a professor at the school and a student of Irish and Celtic Folklore. Aengus was a romantic, Irish soul himself, and he seemed to be everything Thayer could ever want in a mate. Crystal disapproved, of course, and even Grandmother Wentworth had her reservations, telling Thayer there was something “dark” about Aengus, but he and Thayer married anyway, and the “real” story of Burnt Mountain began. Unfortunately, it’s also the place where Burnt Mountain begins to fall apart.

Although Siddons attempted, in her Prologue, to set up a dramatic turn of events surrounding one of her characters (and I do applaud her for that), I don’t believe this turn of events is believable. The change in the character was too abrupt. Readers are, I think, left saying, “Oh, that would never happen!” And really, it doesn't seem like it ever would, and Thayer shouldn’t have been as unhappy as she was. Not at that point in the story. To make matters even worse, Siddons allows Thayer to “unexpectedly” run into Nick as he prepares to work on a project in Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Olympics. I found that unbelievable as well. And what is the year supposed to be anyway? Various references in the book place the story in the 1950s or, at the latest, the 1960s. However, besides the Summer Olympics, Siddons has one character talk about taking a child to see a Harry Potter film, and not necessarily the first one. (The first Harry Potter film wasn’t released until 2001.) I realize a significant chunk of time could have passed by between Thayer’s childhood and her marriage, but not thirty or forty years. Even if a reader isn’t bothered by the abrupt shift in time, many of the characters in Burnt Mountain use cellular phones, which weren’t so prevalent in the 1990s. And there’s a subplot involving a neighbor of Thayer’s, Carol, and Carol’s three sons. This seemed like it was going to be an interesting subplot, however far too much was left out. The subplot felt more like an outline than a fully fleshed out story thread.

I’m a reader who can usually overlook some messy plotting if the prose is first rate. And Siddons usually writes lovely prose. So it is in Burnt Mountain, though Siddons can, at times, be a bit overwrought and melodramatic, and melodrama definitely isn’t my “thing.”

Even Thayer wasn’t up to par with the characters Siddons usually creates. She was likable, to a point, but I got tired of her passivity, the fact that she more or less – usually more – drifted through life. She lived to love her father and her grandmother, then Nick, then Aengus. She never lived to love her own life, apart from others. In fact, she seemed to have no life of her own. She wasn’t at all complex.

Regarding the twisted turn the book takes during the last fifty pages or so, perhaps Siddons simply wanted to venture into the Southern Gothic, a genre I love. If she did, I believe Burnt Mountain missed the mark. While the Southern Gothic often incorporates the supernatural, one of the key components of the genre is deeply flawed characters and decayed, claustrophobic settings, often linked to racism, poverty, or violence. While these elements can enhance Southern literature, if they aren’t organic everything seems out of kilter. This was the case with Burnt Mountain. The book's Southern Gothic elements seemed imposed on the story as opposed to the early “Tennessee” novels of Cormac McCarthy or the work of that master of the Southern Gothic, William Faulkner.

Although parts of the book were very good, and were beautifully written, the ending seemed “tacked on” despite the foreshadowing in the Prologue. The ending was weird and twisted and downright evil, and the rest of the book simply was not. And, in a book replete with ancient folklore, why is no explanation, supernatural or otherwise, given for the “curse” that haunts Burnt Mountain, itself?

Despite the problems with the book, I did, at times, love its darkness, and I loved the descriptions of the rural Georgia landscape. But these things, however, can’t carry an entire novel.

If you’re an Anne Rivers Siddons fan and want to read everything she writes, you might enjoy this book, though be warned, it’s very different from most of her work, and it’s certainly not her best effort. If you’ve never read Siddons and want to give her a try, please don’t begin with this book. Try Peachtree Road or Colony or Outer Banks, instead.


Recommended: Sadly, no. I rarely say this about any book because we all like something a little different and “good” writing has a strong subjective component, but this book really is a waste of time. Even most Siddons fans don’t care for it. Try Peachtree Road, Colony, or Outer Banks, instead. I'll say this, this is one instance in which I think the cover was absolutely perfect for the story the book tells. I loved it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review - Classics - A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

I own the DVD of David Lean’s marvelous film adaptation of E.M. Forester’s novel, A Passage to India, and I’ve watched and loved that DVD several times. Until recently, however, I’d never read the book. I knew I was missing something special, but I wasn’t aware of just how special. If I had been, I certainly would have read this wonderful book sooner.

A Passage to India takes place in and around the fictional town of Chandrapore, India at the height of Britain’s power and control in that country. The perilous balance of East and West in Chandrapore is upset when two Englishwomen – the older Mrs. Moore and the younger Miss Quested – arrive in Chandrapore. Mrs. Moore is there to visit her son, the City Magistrate, Ronny Heaslop, and see him married and settled, and Miss Quested is there because she’s Mrs. Moore’s choice of wife for Ronny. The two women, who know little-to-nothing about social situations or politics in the Orient, want to see “the real India,” and they want to meet a “real Indian.”

Because he likes Mrs. Moore so much, the young, kindly Dr. Aziz, a Muslim, who is a respected Medical Officer at the Chandrapore Hospital, impulsively invites the two women – and several men, of course – on an excursion into the hills to visit the renowned Marabar Caves, and it’s at the caves where something goes terribly wrong, resulting in Miss Quested accusing Dr. Aziz of a crime, a crime that seems, on its face, to be believable due to an entire series of unfortunate events surrounding the outing.

With Dr. Aziz standing accused of a crime against an Englishwoman, Forster has set the stage for a full exploration of the East-West divide that existed in colonial India and the impossibility of lasting friendship between persons of the two cultures. As one might predict, the Indians support Dr. Aziz, while the English, who, for the most part, believe the Indians to be guilty of any charge brought against them by an English person, support Miss Quested. The one and only exception is Cecil Fielding, the Principal of the Government College, who truly believes in Dr. Aziz’s innocence, and who has the courage to break with his own countrymen in order to stand in support of the Indian doctor. In a very real sense, I felt that Mr. Fielding only was supporting Dr. Aziz. The others – both English and Indian alike – seemed to be supporting their prejudices without examining anything Miss Quested or Dr. Aziz said or did while they were visiting the caves. The English believe Miss Quested is right because she is English; the Indians believe Dr. Aziz is right because he is Indian. Only Fielding cares enough to take a good look at the circumstances and the people involved.

The resolution of Dr. Aziz’s trial isn’t really surprising. In fact, there are some who go so far as to say the issue of what really happened at the Marabar Caves doesn’t matter at all, only the repercussions are of consequence. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say what did or didn’t happen in the caves was unimportant, however Dr. Aziz’s arrest certainly brought all the simmering prejudices of both the English and the Indians out in the open. And the incident at the caves was an incident just waiting to happen. Adela Quested tells another character that she had felt “unwell” since the day of the tea party, a tea party that took place long before the outing to Marabar.

What kept me reading was wondering how the respective English and Indians were going to act after the trial was over. Were they going to be able to keep their friendships intact? Or would even Fielding’s and Aziz’s deepening friendship be broken by the Anglo-Indian divide no matter what Fielding and Aziz themselves want?

I can’t say any book has brought India to life for me like Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, but A Passage to India came close. And really, I don’t think I should compare the two books as they depict two very different times in the history of India and very different people. A Passage to India is, I think, the best book I’ve read about colonial India and the problems suffered by both English and Indian alike.

I have to admit, I don’t know a lot about the colonization of India, so keeping that in mind, the characters, for me, rang very true. I found them wonderfully drawn, their dialogue was believable, and I found I understood them even if I didn’t particularly like all of them. I think Forster must have had excellent insight into human character.

I think it should be pointed out that with the exception of Fielding, A Passage to India is a book without heroes and without villains, something that I think deepens its theme. The colonization of India had its good points and it had its bad, among the English and among the Indians, and Forster doesn’t shrink from exposing both. Still, Forster doesn’t pretend to understand India or the complex relationships that occurred during colonial days. India, he says, is a “muddle,” but it is through the problems of colonial India that Forster examines universal problems among human beings everywhere.

Though Forster is commenting on the colonization of India, and though the reader gains insight into how colonial India was governed by the British, A Passage to India is not a political book. The heart of the book doesn’t concern itself with the politics of Raj India, but rather how those politics impacted human relationships in that country during that time, a subject that’s timeless.

Forster’s stream-of-consciousness prose gives us access to the thoughts of all his characters. I loved this as the prose was never awkward, as stream-of-consciousness can be. It flowed beautifully, keeping the reader oriented at all times, though I wouldn’t expect less from a writer as masterful as Forster was.

This is a beautiful novel, but for me, it was also very sad. Even though Fielding stands by Dr. Aziz through his trial, Dr. Aziz still worries constantly that the Englishman will betray him. Such were relationships between the English and the Indians in Raj India. And when the two men meet years after the trial has concluded Fielding asks Aziz, “Why can't we be friends now? It's what I want. It's what you want.” Yet even though the two men desire friendship, friendship seems unattainable.

In Howard’s End, also written by Forster and also a wonderful classic, Forster’s overriding message was to “only connect.” The characters in A Passage to India, however, find “connecting” impossible, much as they may desire it.


Recommended: With no reservations. This is a beautiful, and beautifully sad, classic that everyone should read. The film adaptation by David Lean is wonderful as well.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review - The Hollywood Dodo by Geoff Nicholson

The dodo, a large, flightless bird that vanished from the earth about 1662, is the centerpiece around which Geoff Nicholson’s fourteenth novel, The Hollywood Dodo, revolves. The dodo, which is actually derived from the Portuguese word “duodo,” meaning “stupid,” or “simpleton,” lived on the otherwise then uninhabited island of Mauritius. When the Portuguese arrived, bringing with them an assortment of animals, the poor dodo really stood no chance.

The Hollywood Dodo consists of three overlapping and intertwining stories, told during two time periods—the 20th century and the late 17th century.

Nicholson begins the story in the 20th century with a young, wannabe screenwriter named Rick McCartney. Rick, whose business card proclaims him to be the “Auteur of the Future,” has a dream. He wants to make a rather artsy, period film revolving around an eccentric 17th century Englishman, an Englishman who also has a dream—a dream of finding a dodo to mate with his own, thus saving the species from extinction. As Rick tells one skeptical film executive after another, in a vain attempt to pitch his story:

It’s the story of a man who owns what he fears may be the last dodo on earth, and he’s trying desperately to find a mate for it before the whole species dies out.

Hollywood, as you can probably guess, isn’t interested.

When everything seems against him and all doors seemed to be closed, Rick visits Carla Mendez, a one-legged, Hispanic, past life therapist, a woman with:

...olive skin and festoons of black hair, and dark eyes and lips.

From her Venice Beach apartment, Carla regresses Rick into late 17th century England, where it seems he lived life as one William Draper, a medical student at Oxford whose training is cruelly halted when he, himself, becomes ill. Afflicted with a rare skin disorder that makes it impossible for him to be exposed to sunlight, Draper is told by his superiors:

...a would-be physician who cannot cure himself, nor be cured by the best physicians.... nothing but an embarrassment.

Cast out of Oxford, Draper takes up residence in a seedy, seamy part of London known as Alsatia and becomes a spy for the Royal College of Physicians, reporting back to them regarding anyone whose medical practices seem in any way irregular.

Draper also sets about fulfilling a personal quest. The owner of an aging dodo, Draper wants nothing more than to find another dodo with whom his can mate, thus saving the species from extinction. Sound familiar? As Draper puts it:

The dodo needs a friend and a champion. I have selected myself for the task, though there are times when certainly I feel I have had little choice in the matter.

After his regression, Rick feels compelled to travel to England where he just happens to meet an English writer, and just happens to steal a manuscript from his study that just happens to be about…William Draper. Titled “The Restoration of the Dodo,” Rick is sure this manuscript is the key to getting his own film produced.

While traveling back to L.A., stolen manuscript in hand, Rick has a major panic attack on the plane and fears he’s dying. Enter fiftyish Dr. Henry Cadwallader, a recent widow (I had to wonder if he’d been married to Mrs. Cadwallader, from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Cadwallader not being the most common of names), who is accompanying his daughter, Dorothy, to Hollywood where she hopes to become “a star.” The trouble is, while Dorothy is pretty, she’s also totally vapid. It’s clear to everyone but her that her brush with fame isn’t going to be either long or lasting. However, this won’t be the end of Rick’s interaction with Henry and Dorothy...not by a long shot. Nor will it mark the end of the Cadwalladers’ love affair with Hollywood.

Nicholson is known as a satirist, but he writes with a surprisingly light touch, and The Hollywood Dodo is truly enormous fun. However, it’s heavily contrived and filled to the brim with coincidence. Surprisingly, I really didn’t mind this. The disparate story strands are extremely vivid and Nicholson does a superb job of weaving them together.

Nicholson is also particularly good at manipulating the third person subjective, so we really get to enter the minds of his characters and come to know them extremely well. He’s also excellent at building connections, even though many of these connections do rest heavily on the already-mentioned coincidence, as well as on doubling. The chapter titles have been taken from film titles, e.g., “25. Back to the Future” and “26. Mask.” This is clever, but in the long run, it might just be a little too clever for some readers. I wasn’t bothered by it, though.

It’s also rather difficult to discern a clear theme in the narrative of The Hollywood Dodo. Or, perhaps, there are too many themes. With the dodo as the book’s centerpiece, one gets the idea that The Hollywood Dodo is about extinction, or the sheer fragility of existence. And so it might be, for at one point in the book, Dr. Cadwallader says: don’t make a movie about death and extinction simply by having someone spouting about death and extinction.

But The Hollywood Dodo is definitely about deception as well. Just about everyone in the book is set on deceiving everyone else. William Draper falls in love with a medical fake, and Rick McCartney almost falls in love with his past life therapist, Carla. Both of these plot points highlight the theme of deception and also show how Nicholson employs doubling.

Nicholson, as always, does a great job of playing one character off another, but another of this book’s problems is the fact that there’s not much at stake for anyone. No one’s world is going to end if Rick fails to make his dodo film or if Dorothy fails to find the yellow brick road to stardom. The characters do change by the book’s end, however, some of them dramatically. Hollywood has to have an influence on people, whether for good or ill:

We all know what Hollywood does to people. It changes them, and very seldom for the better. It makes them glib, fake, embittered. And this seems to have nothing much to do with actual achievement, with how well or badly they’re doing. Hollywood success and Hollywood failure can be equally corrupting, though presumably in different ways.

And, so it is in this book.

The thing that keeps the reader turning the pages of this book is Nicholson’s magnificent prose, which is dark and delicious, along with his vivid characterizations. Although this book is, at times, as dark as it is funny, it really isn’t cynical or biting enough for me to term it genuine satire. Black comedy, then? Well, yes, but only at times. There are other times when the book is decidedly unfunny. A running gag and a mispronunciation elicited more groans than laughter from me.

Despite this book’s obvious faults, I still think it’s far above average. For the most part, the humor is quite subtle and Nicholson layers his narratives wonderfully. If you’re a reader who can get past coincidence and plot contrivance and just enjoy the ride, you’re going to find The Hollywood Dodo a lot of fun. If you can’t stand the above, however, you’re going to feel a lot like Nicholson’s characters:

You’re glad you made it, but it’s not quite as you imagined…There was less than you expected, less of everything, fewer explosions and car chases and sex scenes. The exposition was clumsy. The dialogue was flat, the performances wooden. You got restless and thought of walking out before the end.

Some people, I think, a little sadly, are going to feel just that way about The Hollywood Dodo. I didn’t, and if you read this book, I hope you won’t, either.


Recommended: Yes, to those who like satire or black comedy. Although heavily contrived, with not much at stake for the characters, the book is tremendous fun, and it’s worth reading for Nicholson’s dark and delicious prose.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Book Review - Mysteries - The Likeness by Tana French

I don’t for a second believe that we all have a double, as some people say. The one thing I know I share in common with Vladimir Nabokov is my intense dislike for the doppelganger theme, so it was odd – at first – that I chose this book to read. However, The Likeness was written by Tana French, who has shown me, and many others, that she knows how to spin a very good story, and a lyrically written one as well. For a book written by Tana French, I could suspend my dislike of and disbelief in doppelgangers.

The Likeness is French’s second novel, following In the Woods, which, like The Likeness, was also very well received, making French a new “favorite author” for many readers. Also like In the Woods, The Likeness takes place in and around Dublin, Ireland, and centers around a murder investigation.

Those who read In the Woods will already be acquainted with Cassie Maddox, this book’s narrator. (Sadly, Rob Ryan, the narrator of In the Woods, is no where to be found.) The former Murder Squad detective has spent the last six months in Domestic Violence (DV) attempting to recover from the nine months she spent posing as “Lexie Madison” while carrying out “Operation Vestal” and investigating a drug ring, nine months that culminated when she was stabbed.

French sets the plot of The Likeness in motion when Cassie gets a telephone call from her boyfriend, Sam O’Neill, who is still working in “Murder,” telling her she should come out to a certain crime scene right away. A puzzled Cassie travels to the rural town of Glenskehy and an abandoned two-room cottage. There, she finds, not only the murder victim, but Frank Mackey, her acerbic, wisecracking boss, who is also something of a true Irish charmer, and the man with whom Cassie worked on the above-mentioned “Operation Vestal.”

Cassie is startled by the appearance of the victim, who died of four stab wounds. She looks enough like Cassie to be her twin. And even more startling, her identification says her name was “Lexie Madison.” “Lexie Madison,” however, was a creation of Frank’s and Cassie’s. No one ever believed she was real, and certainly no one ever expected Cassie’s double to show up whatever her name might be. Lexie Madison, however, was a registered graduate student in English Literature at Trinity College, and she lived with four fellow students in a dilapidated mansion known as Whitethorn House, near the village.

The four students, all PhD candidates, who shared Whitethorn House with Lexie – the cold and paternal Daniel, the handsome Rafe, the eccentric Abby, who has a love of antique dolls, and the nervous Justin – swear they were all together the night Lexie was attacked, and none of them, so they say, left the house. Only Lexie, who was in the habit of taking a nightly walk.

Because Lexie was a ringer for Cassie, Frank names the investigation, “Operation Mirror,” and remains convinced that one of the four students still living at Whitethorn House is guilty of murdering Lexie. Since the public does not yet know that Lexie died, Frank, over the objections of Sam, convinces Cassie to go undercover once again – as Lexie. Frank plans on releasing the news that Lexie has “survived” the attack and recovered from the coma she was in. Then he’ll send Cassie – as Lexie – back “home” to Whitethorn House in order to learn more about the four surviving roommates, and hopefully to determine which one, or ones, killed “Lexi.” A bandage over “Lexie’s” “stab wound” will conceal a microphone that will enable Frank to monitor everything that goes on.

We know something is going to go horribly wrong, of course. For one thing, while Cassie can learn Lexie’s habits, like taking the nightly walk, other things, like Lexie’s distaste for onions, will prove impossible for her to learn. This, of course, ratchets up the suspense, as mistakes will inevitably be made, and Cassie will have to try to explain them and remain believable to the housemates.

Inside Whitethorn House, Cassie – now “Lexie” – learns that the roommates live a strange, though rather idyllic life that takes little notice of the outside world. In fact, the roommates will remind many readers of Donna Tartt’s bestseller, The Secret History in which college students, who may be responsible for a murder, make a secret pact, each one protecting the others as well as himself. But questions remain. What secret really holds the residents of Whitethorn House together? Why do the villagers despise them so? What really happened the night Lexie was killed? And when will the guilty party make his/her move?

Danger, of course, and chinks in the integrity of “Operation Mirror,” lurk around every corner as Cassie, who at heart, is very lonely, responds to the warmth and affection offered her at Whitethorn and is drawn further and further into the life of the woman who was “Lexie Madison.”

The Likeness isn’t a typical mystery. For one thing, French takes her time setting things up. She’s far more concerned with character development than in giving us a “connect-the-dots” mystery to solve or even a “big twist” to shock us. Some of what happens in this book is predictable and conventional, but certainly not all of it. The leisurely pace of the set up allows the reader to be pulled into Cassie’s world, and French’s writing is good enough to keep most readers there until the end of the story.

The bulk of the book concerns Cassie’s experiences at Whitethorn House with Daniel, Abby, Justin, and Rafe. During this section, I think the book tends to bog down in detail just a little. I found Cassie’s core loneliness interesting, and I applaud French for exploring it, but I can read only so many descriptions of idyllic domestic life in a mystery before I want to return to the main plot and move along toward its resolution. And, speaking of the resolution, while French did deliver on the “Who is Lexie” mystery, that solution, for me, was pretty obvious by the time we reached the end of the book. To French’s credit, she gives us more emotional closure at the end of this book than she did in In the Woods, while still avoiding tying everything up in a neat and tidy package.

I enjoyed reading The Likeness even though I felt, at times, that French was asking her readers to suspend their disbelief a little too often. In reality, I don’t think Cassie could fool four people who knew “Lexi” intimately for even one entire day; I don’t think “Lexi” could have enrolled at Trinity; and I don’t think any trained undercover detective worth her salt would conceal evidence from her superiors. I can accept one implausible – the fact that “Lexi” looked just like Cassie – but I have trouble accepting a whole string of them. And what about Daniel? (To say more would be to give you a spoiler, but if you read the book, you’ll know what I mean.) I understand that French is exploring loneliness and the bonds of friendship, and that she’s using the mystery of “Lexi Madison” to do so, but still, mystery readers are going to be French’s primary readers, and mystery readers need for French to devote as much care to the actual mystery of the book as she does to the characters involved in that mystery’s resolution. The fact that French doesn’t seem to care about the mystery as much as her characters is this book’s big flaw.

The writing in The Likeness is gorgeous, though, and it’s the writing that kept me reading. However, there were times when even that let me down. The dialogue sometimes got a little too trendy for my taste, and the roommates and Cassie indulged in ambiguous conversations that hinted at long-buried secrets one too many times. And, the book is simply too long for one that resolves so conventionally. I know, The Secret History (Tartt) was longer, and I loved that book, but that book was far less conventional than this one is. All in all, I think I liked In the Woods more than The Likeness. I found it a darker, more lyrical book than The Likeness, and a lot more believable, and I am very attracted to dark, lyrical books.

Still, a lot of people loved reading The Likeness. If you can accept a book whose plot is built on several “implausibles,” and if you don’t mind a very slow moving mystery, you might enjoy reading The Likeness, too. I know I will keep reading Tana French.


Recommended: To readers who like their mysteries long and rather slow. This definitely isn’t a fast paced thriller, nor does it pretend to be one. The plot resolution is rather predictable, but there is much delving into character along the way.

Note: It’s not necessary to have read In the Woods prior to reading The Likeness. French orients the reader well enough to key events that happened in the previous book.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Book Review - Home by Marilynne Robinson

Home, the winner of the 2009 Orange Prize, is a companion novel of sorts to Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead. Both novels can stand on their own, of course, and Home is neither prequel nor sequel to Gilead. Home takes place during the same summer in 1956 as Gilead, and contains many of the same characters. However, while Gilead revolves around John Ames, a third generation Congregationalist minister, and around Ames’ memories and reflections, Home revolves around the Boughton family and tells their story and their history, from their perspective.

The Boughtons, especially Jack (John) Boughton, Ames’ godson and namesake, and the wayward son of Ames’ best friend, the Rev. Robert Boughton, do make an appearance in Gilead, but Home is their book just as Gilead is the Ames family’s book. Robert Boughton and John Ames grew up together in Gilead, and when it came time for them to follow their calling in life, both men followed their own fathers into the ministry, Boughton, whose ancestors were from Scotland, led the Presbyterian church in Gilead, while Ames, whose grandfather was a visionary abolitionist from Maine, became head of Gilead’s Congregationalists. Home develops the Boughtons’ stories, especially Jack’s, stories that began years ago in the small town of Gilead, Iowa. The point-of-view character of Home, however, isn’t Jack, it’s his sister, the thirty-eight year old Glory Boughton, the youngest of the eight Boughton children.

Glory has returned to Gilead, and her family’s big, vine-covered house, in the wake of a failed romantic relationship, to care for her elderly and ailing father, sometimes fondly referred to as “the old man.” Robert Boughton is overjoyed to see his youngest child, though both father and daughter walk on eggshells when it comes to Glory’s broken engagement. By unspoken agreement, it simply isn’t mentioned. Glory, however, has mixed feelings about “coming home.”:

I am thirty-eight years old, she would say to herself as she tidied up after supper. I have a master's degree. I taught high school English for thirteen years. I was a good teacher. What have I done with my life? What has become of it? It is as if I had a dream of adult life and woke up from it, still here in my parents’ house.

As soon as Glory settles in, another of the Boughton clan decides it’s time to return home. Both the Reverend and Glory are surprised when Robert Boughton receives a letter from forty-three year old Jack, the youngest of the four Boughton brothers, and definitely the “black sheep” of the family, stating that he, too, will soon be arriving “home,” in Gilead. Jack hasn’t been “home” for twenty years, when he dishonored himself and his family by getting a teenage girl pregnant, then deserting both her and his child-to-be.

John Ames, in Gilead, remembers Jack less charitably than simply as “the black sheep.” Though Jack’s his godson, the Reverend Ames sees the younger man as a mean-spirited trickster who had no remorse for the damage he caused others, someone who, at best, eschewed any sense of personal responsibility, and who, at worst, was truly malicious.

Readers of Gilead will know that John doesn’t trust Jack around his (John’s) young son, Robby (named for Reverend Robert Boughton), though Robby likes Jack very much, and Jack seems to like Robby. Speaking of Jack, Ames says, “....these people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.” And predictably, though he’s a generous and charitable man, the Reverend Ames never does credit Jack with trying to be any better than he already is. The characters in Home judge and misjudge one another over and over again.

Jack’s father, however, is inclined to be a bit more charitable regarding Jack, as one would expect. Rather than attribute Jack’s misdeeds to maliciousness or even to a lack of personal responsibility, Boughton feels that Jack’s bad behavior can be attributed to sadness, or an overriding sense of familial estrangement. “I just never knew another child who didn’t feel at home in the house where he was born,” Boughton says. “I always felt it was sadness I was dealing with, a sort of heavyheartedness.” Boughton is overjoyed to see his youngest son and he still feels that his own “boundless love” might open the prodigal’s heart and turn his life around.

As Robinson sets up and develops her story, the past overlays the present time and time again. Boughton is a man who, at this time in his life, at least, prefers to reminisce about the past rather than anchor himself in the present, and really, who can blame him? When Jack gives his father a bunch of mushrooms, they trigger a flood of memories in the older man:

He drew a deep breath and laughed.... Morels. Dan and Teddy used to bring me these. And blackberries, and walnuts. And they'd bring in walleye and catfish. And pheasants. They were always off in the fields, down by the river. With the girls it was always flowers. So long ago.

Glory, however, doesn’t recognize the beloved brother who arrives in Gilead, “a stranger unsure of his welcome.” Gone is the handsome man Glory once idolized, and in his place is someone pale, thin, and distinctly unkempt. And it’s clear Jack has a secret, a secret he chooses not to share with his father or with Glory. (Readers of Gilead, however, will know what that secret is.) Jack has changed, and Glory now sees him as “the weight on the family's heart, the unnamed absence, like the hero in a melancholy tale.”

Jack may not be a hero, but he definitely is carrying the weight of a great sorrow on his shoulders. It’s clear Jack is speaking of himself when he asks, “Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?” Yet neither his father nor his godfather can answer Jack’s question with any real clarity. It’s Lila, Ames’ much younger wife who reassures Jack that “a person can change. Everything can change.” But does it? Can they?

It’s clear Home is a secretive novel, or a novel filled with secrets. And it’s clear Jack Boughton is a man in spiritual crisis. While one of Jack’s secrets revolves around the letters he writes every day to a woman named Della, and why those letters are eventually returned unopened to the Boughton home, Jack’s spiritual crisis is something both the Reverend and Glory fear, lest Jack leave Gilead once again. Robinson writes:

They had always been so careful of him, almost afraid to touch him. There was an aloofness about him more thoroughgoing than modesty or reticence. It was feral, and fragile.

By the end of the book, Glory, rightly or wrongly, come to associate her feelings about Jack with the frequent description of the Messiah, as a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face.”

One of the best things about Home is the beauty of Robinson’s writing. Though she’s from Montana, she’s been teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for twenty plus years now, and it’s clear she’s come to love the small towns and farms that dot the Iowa countryside; she’s definitely caught the rhythm of their life:

One evening Jack came in from the late twilight while Glory was settling her father for the night. They heard him in the kitchen getting himself a glass of water. The air had cooled. Insects had massed against the window screens, minute and various, craving the light from the tilted bulb of her father’s bedside lamp, and the crickets were loud, and an evening wind was stirring the trees. It always calmed her to know Jack had come inside for the night. She knew he would be propped against the counter, drinking good, cold water in the dark, the feel and smell of soil still on his hands.

But the rhythm of life in a small village in Iowa, more often than not, is rather static, and Home, despite Robinson’s beautiful, shimmering, but plain, prose, is a rather static book. Some readers will be able to tolerate this and even like it, while others will find it boring. And those readers who grew up in strongly religious, Protestant homes, will, I think, understand the people in Home best of all.

I found Home far more religious than Housekeeping, which I found spiritual, but not religious at all, and less religious than Gilead. (All of Robinson’s writing is strongly influenced by her own Protestant faith. Raised a Presbyterian, like Boughton, she became interested in the Congregationalist faith – the faith of Gilead’s John Ames – while studying 19th century American writers, and today she is a longtime member of the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City, Iowa.) But, while Gilead is the more religious book, Home does more to explore family dynamics and relationships. It is, after all, a book whose central theme revolves around the return of the prodigal, and Home also touches on questions of politics in that Jack is very concerned with a certain political question. And, although Gilead and Home can be read as “stand alone” books, I think the reading of one certainly enriches the reading of the other. Both books do raise similar theological and spiritual questions, however, despite the theological questions posed in both books, don’t expect any answers, at least no clear-cut answers. Robinson has said that while she likes exploring matters of faith in her writing, she, herself, is content to let the questions raised stand, unanswered.

If I had one problem with Home it had to do with the voice of Jack Boughton. We’re told Jack was/is the “the black sheep, the ne’er-do-well” of the family, but when Jack “speaks,” he speaks in the gentle, understanding voice of his father (or of Robinson, herself), not his father’s ne’er-do-well son. For example, when Jack is telling Glory about the woman he left behind in St. Louis, he says, “We became friends almost without calculation or connivance on my part.” This is not the Jack Boughton Robinson describes to us, the “black sheep,” the man who left a young girl pregnant and his child-to-be. Jack, more often than not, elicits sympathy from the reader, which I thought was fine, but I did want access to his more unprincipled side as well.

In the end, readers who liked Housekeeping and Gilead are going to love Home, while those who found the first two books too slow moving are going to find Home too slow moving as well. I don’t think anyone can argue with the book’s perfect structure, though, or with the beauty of its essentially plain prose.

Home, for me, was my favorite among Marilynne Robinson’s three novels. I enjoyed spending time with the Boughton family, and I found Home a more emotional, but no less beautiful, experience than the other two books.


Recommended: To those who love highly literary novels and can tolerate a slow moving book that is dependent more on characterization than plot.