I want to start by discussing the characters. First, Dubus’ third person narrator pov shifts frequently, from character to character in each chapter such that we get insights into each characters thoughts. How well do you think that works? I know that House of Sand and Fog was acclaimed for the dual narration, but here he gets into a lot of characters heads and I’m not sure it works in every case.
The story unwinds gradually, with little forward action, but each report of the visit, and each childhood memory is a revelation that exposes their parents’ neglect and their own insecurities, but never reveals all. The exact nature of Richard’s malaise is undefined, as is the precise reason for his committal, and the real reason for J.D’s visit. J.D. imitates a scientist, trying to write cogent observation, but the unspoken in his report probably tells his psych professors as much about himself as his brother. He is lonesome and proud, sad and petty, but cannot express his emotions as clearly as his dissertation premise. His frustration spills out into his report.
What struck me as most honest and sincere was the fact that these people were hungry, whether they’re eating each other, dried candle wax or boiled bark, there is an underlying slow death that floats like a cool mist around every corner. You never knew when the enemy was going to turn his gun on you, say for instance, if they found out if you could read or not. I’m trying not to spoil this novel for you. There are tons of memorable moments from a house in the woods that’s filled with young girls (use your imagination) to a small hunters lodge that gets truly grizzly when it’s filled with too many people. Then there is Lev and Kolya who are both funny and charming, shy and gregarious.
All of this may seem like surface paint, and nothing more than a façade but it’s not. I’m interested to hear what you both thought about the structure of this book, not only from these four/five lives we follow for five hundred pages but the riveting historical facts that Frey weaves into the tapestry of this fine novel. I was stunned by the little thumbnail sketches that really amounted to nothing more than Frey showcasing his talents and made up for the wanderings that other writers tend to do within a character. With these people who come and go he manages to fill out his primary characters with throw away people as background which really only take up a few pages every so often.
Jonathan, I must say you tricked me, not once but several times, in that I convinced myself that the plot was moving in a certain direction only to find out that you were taking your characters elsewhere. This is a very good thing. But the first puzzlement that surfaced while I was playing dodge-ball with this text was why William obsessed about Lulu so much. When Lulu’s face is described early in the book by a reference to Mr. Potato Head (very funny, I must say) I knew what was working on William was more than just Lulu’s looks.
This story is about a chance encounter on a Manhattan street between a man and a woman that, it turns out, have some history. The POV of the guy is what we hear and he is plainly obsessed with his old acquaintance Mary, who he hasn’t seen in quite a while. But “plainly” is not an accurate word since right off we are treated to a methodical description of Mary’s appearance that is so sensual that it would make the god Eros proud. And there is a nice observation in the science of dalliance when the guy realizes that this random encounter will end just as quickly as it began unless he makes a segue to another encounter, this one planned rather than aleatory.