What I loved
I found something unexpected in Siri Hustvedt. I started reading the book almost as a chore: I had bought it out of pure curiosity stemming from my love for Paul Auster and then it stared at me from the top of a pile for probably a year. The title is, quite frankly, off-putting and I expected something saccharine. What I got though was a powerful story of loss, failing and self-delusion. And I don’t know if it’s true or if it’s some kind of projection on my part, but I found her style and even some of her themes (starting with making New York a sort of character in its own right) eerily similar to those of Mr. Auster. (Even if that’s all in my head, I still plan to try at least another of her books.)
What I loved is divided in 3 parts, the first two of which both end in a death marking a new stage in our narrator’s life, an art professor at Columbia, the overly analytical Leo Hertzberger.
It all starts with the relationship between two men: the narrator and Bill Wechsler – a painter and visual artist who becomes his best friend – and it expands to include their families: Leo’s wife Erica and their son Matthew; Bill’s wives (first Lucille, then Violet) and his son from the first marriage, Mark. In fact, it all starts even earlier: with a painting of Violet done by Bill while he was still married to Lucille, a painting that, later on, came somehow to symbolize their relationship and, more importantly, Lucille’s influence cast unwittingly merely through her absence. Their professional lives and descriptions of their work (particularly Bill’s) take up much of the novel, but are perfectly entwined with their private lives and their continually shifting relationships. While it’s clear that, even as they sometimes drift apart, the core of what brought them together is still there, the mutations, the equilibrium shifts both between the main characters and between those levitating around them are what make novel so real and authentic – at least through the first half (but more on that later).
Matt’s death (at the end of part 1) is not really a surprise – you feel it lurking, even unconsciously; and when it does happen you realize you always knew it would. All Leo’s stories of him are suffused with the golden tinge of nostalgia: the child that maybe was truly exceptional or maybe only in the eyes of the aggrieved parent – and the few minutes, translated in a couple of pages after the fateful phone call that would shatter Leo & Erica’s world are a nearly perfect mix of disbelief, shock and grief. The subsequent fraying of the parents’ relationship reminded me a bit of Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions and Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time, possibly because they all deal with loss and its toll.
The third part, with Mark’s downward spiral and the realization that, more than a drug addict, he really is a clinical psychopath, felt a little forced to me, like its entire existence was driven solely by the need to have another conflict. The New York art scene and Teddy Giles stand out glaringly because their colors are too harsh, too bright and contrast too much with the more muted tones of all that came before. Also, the thriller-like quality of the third part (the missing kid, the suspicions, the endless assumptions and finally the journey to recover him) simply doesn’t match – like a puzzle where you’re trying to fit in a too-large piece. But, I suppose, it all helps bring the book to a clear, clean ending – too clean, come to think of it.
Other random thoughts: Ms. Hustvedt makes, I think, oblique references to a couple of 90s works that sparked controversy (The Killers could very well be Natural Born Killers and Psycholand sounds a lot like American Psycho) to clarify Mark’s tastes and Teddy’s influence on him, but they’re all too on the nose and their sensationalist tone only lessen the overall effect; also, my favorite bit of all the characters’ work was definitely Violet’s thesis on hysteria and her case studies (actually, instead of the whole Mark subplot, I would much rather have read more about this 😀 ).