In the end, I loved this book. But for the first 200+ pages I had no idea where it was going. Unlike traditional 19th and 20th Century novels, there was no clear through-line from page 1, no ‘meet our hero who wants this but can’t have it because….’ Instead, we encounter a cast of quirky characters, chief of whom is Count Alexander Rostov, a ‘former person’ (according to the post-Revolutionary Bolshevik regime) sentenced to permanent house arrest in the Metropol, a posh Moscow hotel and icon of a bygone age.
Ok, let me see if I can summarize things a bit (I’ll give a spoiler alert if I reveal anything you might not want to know until you finish the novel). We meet the Count on the day of his sentencing, whereupon he is removed from his longstanding hotel room (#317), a spacious, elegant apartment overlooking central Moscow. Much to his surprise, he returns from court to find his belongings (those few he can keep) on their way to the sixth floor, a venue formerly used to house servants of wealthy hotel clients. The only things he can fit in his new room are his grandmother’s coffee table, his desk, and a bed. Oh, my. But he’s not deflated. Instead, he gradually adapts to his change in circumstance, slowly morphing from a privileged member of the Russian aristocracy to a hotel employee, specifically maître d’ of the Boyarsky, the hotel’s upscale restaurant. Here the former Count puts his innate ability to seat dinner guests in the most advantageous way–a skill discovered at his grandmother’s lavish dinner parties–to good use. The effete count, in other words, becomes a laborer. But he’s fine with that. Likewise, his former service providers—Emile, the chef, as well as other hotel managers and clerks (including the hotel seamstress), become his colleagues. And he makes all of these changes with aplomb, showing no difference in his treatment of or affection for said persons from his former days. Which marks Alexander–Sasha–as a wonderful main character, immune, in a way, from the class issues that precipitated the Russian Revolution. One thing he retains from his aristocratic past, though—besides his impeccable manners and refined sensibility—is a large stash of gold coins engraved with Catherine the Great’s image. Worth a fortune, they are hidden in the legs of his antique desk, and surface at key points in the novel. They are, if you will, one of the novel’s recurring symbols, and play an important role in the novel’s conclusion.
Aside from Alexander’s friends-cum-colleagues, he interacts with a few others, the first of which is Nina, a young, free-spirited girl dressed in idiosyncratic yellow (which sets her apart from everyone else, and is therefore indicative of the old order) who runs around the hotel eavesdropping on clientele, including Soviet officials. She also has a master key to all of the hotel’s rooms, which plays a significant role in future events. Although we have no idea what this future entails, we enjoy Alexander and Nina’s frivolous adventures, along with their camaraderie, dinner dates, etc.
So… so far we have a charming novel about an eccentric group of characters who live and work in a prestigious hotel, reminiscent of books and movies like The Bridge Over San Luis Rey, The Grand Hotel, Murder on the Orient Express, etc., wherein a seemingly unrelated group of people wind up having something crucial in common. And that is all that kept me going with the novel until page 200 or so when I started to put 2 + 2 together and realized I was witnessing the gradual transformation of Russian society from pre-Revolutionary privilege to post-Revolutionary communism–and back again. Because, sadly, the new regime fails to fulfill its idealistic Marxist promise and becomes more and more like its predecessor, reverting to the same kind of hierarchical structures inherent in old-world Russian politics.
What I’ve decided, then, is this book is about is the failure of communism, the irony of an ostensibly egalitarian system becoming as stratified as the czarist system it was meant to replace. A light-hearted meditation on the human condition (on human frailty as well as true humanitarianism, because Alexander Rostov is nothing if not an exceptional human being), A Gentleman in Moscow is harder to decode than Rules of Civility, but is a masterwork of irony nonetheless that succeeds in delivering serious content while at the same time entertaining us.
In sum, A Gentleman in Moscow is one of those books less about story than about plot. Luckily, its characters don’t suffer for it, because, typically, in clever books–ie, books more about ideas than emotions–the characters suffer because they are first and foremost pieces of a puzzle, emblematic more than idiosyncratic. And A Gentleman in Moscow is a puzzle of old new vs. old, of the new order seeming to supplant the old, but, in the end, just replacing it, becoming it.
In a word, what goes around comes around in this novel. Thus (SPOILER ALERT) in contrast to the devolution of the communist ideal, Count Alexander, his paramour, Anna, a haughty Russian actress who finds herself on a progressively lower social stratum–and Nina gradually become their better selves as the novel progresses. Nina becomes her purposeful and talented daughter, Sophia; the Count becomes a commoner; his longtime friend, Mikail Fyoderonch—aka Mishka—former idealist, revolutionary and poet (it is he, after all, who writes the poem favored by the new regime calling for a new order, a new world—a poem that ironically saves Alexander’s life, because the Party thinks he wrote it and therefore is an early Communist sympathizer) ends up defeated, disillusioned, dead; and Anna becomes the new Helena, Alexander’s beloved sister.
A redeeming novel in the end, A Gentleman in Moscow is a portrait of the human condition. Communism fails, but these several characters–who represent the core of humanity–survive, grow and, in the end, escape to a better world, just as do their confreres Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca, which Towles so masterfully references and celebrates at the novel’s close.
End of summer’s here at last, and I’ll miss it despite the fact I’ve done nothing but complain about heat and humidity the past few months. But change always scares me, and fall is a big change, perhaps the biggest seasonal change on the east coast. Why? Because it’s a step toward winter, the deadest of seasons (not the deadliest or ugliest or anything bad, by any means–I love winter, especially here in the South). Still, it’s a step toward death. Which leads me to the subject of this post–Helen Mc Donald’s disturbing yet amazing autobiography, H is for Hawk. What follows is my review.
This was a lovely book. Not a happy book, and not an easy book. But a thoughtful, interesting, beautifully-written one in which Helen McDonald weaves together three main threads–the loss of her father, TH White’s genius vis-a-vis his personal struggles, and her relationship with Mabel, a young female goshawk. How do these threads connect? I’m not sure I can explain it, because the tapestry is subtle, long and complex. The best I can say is the author is devastated by her father’s untimely death, cannot accept it or speak of it at first. She remembers loving hawks as a child, observing and training them with her father. This inspires her to purchase a young goshawk from Germany, I believe, the same place from which revered author TH White had gotten his beloved hawk, Gos. This also spurs McDonald’s memories of TH White’s autobiography, in which he describes training Gos, which McDonald argues has much to do with White’s own childhood. A gay man in merry old England at a time when it was not popular to be gay (especially in the eyes of his judgmental parents) made White feel like a misfit his entire life, despite his acclaimed teaching and writing career. Author of The Once and Future King, it’s ironic that the creator of this story of honor and nobility and equality should have so suffered at the hands of his own parents. But maybe that’s why he valued the beautiful Arthurian legend that inspired his work.
On to McDonald and her father. The pain of her father’s loss also inspires McDonald to raise a goshawk, easily one of the swiftest and deadliest killers on the planet. But McDonald does not judge her hawk, Mabel, for this. If anything, she respects her instinct and integrity. The hawk is an unabashed carnivore, honing in on her prey with laser precision. There’s no guilt, no remorse, and, from what I could tell, no subsequent bonding with her trainer. Still, Mc Donald loves this bird and somehow derives solace from its unrequited killing. It’s as if she identifies with this aspect of the bird (and I think she says so in the book), because raising the hawk helps her deal with her father’s death. He was brutally taken from McDonald, without warning or explanation. It was, in her view, a meaningless death. A sudden and terrible loss of the person she’d adored from childhood on. A gentle, kind man who studied the world through a photographer’s lens–from afar and with great respect, much like a tiny hare who lives his life unaware of the dangers that surround him–dangers like Mabel, who ruthlessly grabs the unwitting hare, crushes him to death with her claws, then devours him.
Similarly, TH White is able to deal with his homosexuality (and his father’s condemnation) through his relationship with his difficult goshawk, Gos. White’s attempt to control his very macho (though I believe Gos was female) hawk is in response to his own feelings of inadequacy for being gay. I’m not quite sure how this works, either. Both Mc Donald and White are in great pain and somehow externalizing that pain by raising remorseless killers helps them overcome it. Perhaps McDonald learns to accept death as part of life–senseless, unexpected, and hurtful to those left behind–but a natural none-the-less. This is what Mabel teaches her–that in order to fulfill her destiny as a hawk, she must search and kill. There is no ulterior motive other than getting food. The hawk is guileless and driven by instinct. There’s no malice in her behavior. It’s simply a matter of survival. In this way, McDonald comes to admire, love and appreciate the hawk for who she is. So, too, she must continue to admire, love and honor her father, despite his swift and sudden death. He’s not killed out of malice either–he just dies because that is what we humans (and all living things) must do. There is nothing more to it–just like the goshawk’s killing. It’s the hand of fate, it’s guileless and remorseless. It’s a ticking clock, that’s all. There’s on one to blame for her father’s death, because there’s no reason or intention behind it. It just is. If she can accept this about the hawk’s nature, she can learn to accept this fact about human life. We live, we die, and we are mourned. Thus, anger is displaced by sorrow, and McDonald can at least understand her father’s death.
In White’s case, McDonald demonstrates how control of the hawk is a substitute for control over his life. His impulses, like the hawk’s, are natural, outside of his control, guileless and, therefore, innocent. He is able to accept who he is by loving and understanding this creature with similarly uncontrollable passions. There’s nothing wrong or right with those passions. They just are. Just as is McDonald’s hawk’s predatory nature. Just as is her father’s sudden and unexplained death. Such is life, such is loss, so she must let it go, much as she and White release their hawks and watch them do the unthinkable. That is life and we must respect it.
I hope this review makes sense to readers. It’s simply my attempt to explain this remarkable book to myself. I look forward to reading critical reviews to see what others think.
Thank you for reading–jgk.
One of the best novels I’ve read in recent years, I Saw a Man is thematic, thoughtful and literary without being pretentious. A bit of a mystery with a soupcon of murder, the novel opens with an obscure poem by Hughes Mearns:
“Yesterday, upon the stair,
I saw a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away …”
A charming, but seemingly meaningless, ditty, it is a clue to the deeper, more perturbing issues in I Saw a Man—issues of guilt and responsibility, remorse and blame, sadness and forgiveness, accident and intention. In short, the novel with a deceptively simple title and epigraph is anything but simple.
In the opening pages of I Saw a Man aspiring novelist, Michael Turner, finds his true love in an international journalist named Caroline. Settling in a remote corner of Wales to escape their frenetic pre-marital lifestyles, their idyllic married life is tragically cut short when Caroline takes a risky assignment in Afghanistan. The inciting incident of the novel, it leads Michael on a path through anger and grief before finally resolving in a sort of clouded empathy as he returns to his birth city and establishes a new life. But what happens between points A &B is a series of highly unanticipated events, all of which contribute to the novel’s main theme.
Beautifully written with an economy of backstory and description, the novel is a classic peeling-an-onion style narrative, wherein widower Michael Turner reveals the details of his past in bits and pieces that accrue more and more meaning as the novel progresses. The setting of the story, a luxurious heath in south London, plays a prominent role in the novel, too, informing its mood and events. A second literary technique Sheers uses to great advantage in the novel is mirroring, whereby seemingly disparate and unrelated events parallel one another, drawing readers back time and again to the novel’s central issue of culpability.
If this review seems obscure, it is because I Saw a Man is the sort of novel that invites (and deserves) scrutiny. It is opaque in a good way, rich in depth and dimension. What I admire most, however, is how Sheers subtly highlights the larger issues of the novel without bludgeoning us with them. Beyond the culpability of the main characters, for example, is the larger question of authenticity. Unlike them, we may not have caused another’s misfortune, but surely we, too, have indirectly fostered hurts and pain—small but significant partial deaths—in our lifetimes. It is part of being human. No matter how much we aspire to truth, beauty and goodness, we inevitably face situations in which we are less than honest, irresponsible if not entirely guilty, hurtful by default, if you will.
Another interesting aspect of the novel is Michael’s description of himself as an aspiring fiction-writer. Here again we experience the reflexive nature of Sheers’ novel—he is writing a novel about a character who wants to do just that—write a novel. Again, think of peeling-an-onion or a Chinese box. As a failed novelist, Michael finds his niche in writing non-fictional, intimate portrayals of people he meets. Here Sheers blurs the line between fiction and reality—an inherent flaw of biography—because of the categorical impossibility of ever truly knowing another human being. The irony is that even as Michael acknowledges the impossibility of knowing the exact content of his subject’s each and every conversation, his subject may have had, he still believes there is a measure of truth the writer is able to convey by virtue of his proximity to his subject, a proximity he seeks to actualize by removing himself, the observing party, from the final product, the biography. Thus Sheers’ protagonist inserts himself into other people’s lives in order to discover their truths, then promptly “disappears himself” from the finished work in order to more fully realize his subject’s unadulterated reality.
Michael exercises this technique in early in the novel in his summary of “Neighborhoods,” a study of two brothers whose contrasting lives continue to diverge from one another even after the book is finished. A second book he’s written is about a scientist who seeks to identify the exact nature of empathy by theorizing there are certain cells in the brain that actually “mirror” other people’s experiences, thus allowing them to understand and empathize with each other. Sheers’ novel exhibits this same type of mirroring or repetition as Michael seeks his own truth and struggles to become as authentic a human being as possible.
If this discussion has taken a metaphysical turn, it’s because I Saw a Man is ‘meta’ in nature. Like many great works, its form equals content, the meaning of the novel and its telling feeding one another in an endless loop. I’ve purposely avoided specificity to allow the reader to discover the novel’s meaning for himself.
Overall, I Saw a Man is a modern masterpiece, much like The Goldfinch or All the Light We Cannot See. Like Donna Tart and Anthony Doerr, Own Sheers is one of those writers whose work resonates far beyond the confines of its covers. I honestly can’t imagine—and can’t wait to see—what Sheers writes next.
Review of The Girl on the Train
The Girl on the Train has much to recommend it, not least of which is its best- seller status. But I wonder about the recent flurry of “Girl” books, starting with Gillian Flynn’s truly admirable Gone Girl.
I loved GG. It was slick, interesting, surprising. Good plot (excellent plot, actually. I remember thinking you’d have to be a mastermind to plot something as complicated as this.), well-drawn characters, plausible motivations (the minor exception being Nick Dunne’s final dubitable decision).
But then along came Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on a Train, followed shortly by Renne Knight’s Disclaimer, another in kind (though one lacking the eponymous “Girl” title).
Let’s take GT. Similar in style to Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train is told from multiple points of view—four, in fact: three women and one man, all of whom, sounded alike. This was my first problem with the book, which, in the end, had a decent plot. But when all of a novel’s characters sound the same, it’s difficult to distinguish one from another, a cardinal rule in novel-writing being that each character have its own “voice.” So I had trouble navigating GT because I could never be quite sure who was speaking (unless I went back to the chapter heads to double-check), which greatly disrupted the flow of the narrative.
A second confusing issue was the time frame. Like GG and so many other contemporary novels (reaching back as far as Michael Cunningham’s The Hours—which was excellent and warranted the shifts in time—as well as Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife and Sara Gruen’s Like Water for Elephants, for example) GT moves forward and back in time, a technique which has become less ‘novel’ than de rigueur. So de rigueur, in fact, it’s become tiresome, mainly because it’s difficult to follow.
A lifelong reader, I propose a return to the days of straightforward narrative—unless different time periods are truly warranted by the story. Let the story stand on its own merit. Let the characters absorb us. Let their voices seduce us. Let go of the gimmickry of multiple points of view and shifts in time—or at least use them judiciously. Currently they’re so over-used as to become parodies of themselves, serving no other purpose than to confuse the reader—which, sadly, seems to be the sole point of many of the Gone Girl clones.
Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, it’s no surprise Anthony Doerr’s latest tome is one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. A masterpiece rich in story, structure and theme, All the Light We Cannot See centers on Marie-Laure, a sightless young French girl, and Werner, a young German orphan whose expertise in radio technology makes him a valuable asset to the Third Reich. Set during WWII in Paris, St. Malo and various points along the German front, we first meet Marie-Laure and Werner as young children in their respective homes of Paris and Zollverein, a small but vital coal-mining town in western Germany. Written in the present tense, unusual for a story set in the distant past, Doerr’s appealingly short chapters alternate between Marie-Laure and Werner’s points of view. Beginning in 1944 Paris, motherless Marie-Laure accompanies her father to work each day, meticulously learning to navigate the streets between their rooftop apartment in the 5th arrondissement and the Jardin des Plantes, where he is a master locksmith.
As readers quickly learn, however, All the Light We Cannot See is more than the interweaving of Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s wartime lives. It is also a novel rich in imagery and musings about light, sight and the irony of the brain existing in absolute darkness while at the same time allowing us to perceive ‘all the light’ of the objective world. Marie’s blindness and reliance upon other senses—smell, touch, hearing, etc.—are deftly rendered as is Werner and Marie-Laure’s inevitable intersection by way of her grandfather’s radio broadcasts–broadcasts remembers listening to as a young boy. Eventually used to help Allied troops, the radio is a good example of how every image, every plot point, every detail in the novel carries weight.
There’s also the story of the Sea of Flame, a rare diamond that bears an onerous warning–that it will protect its owner from misfortune and death, but is a virtual a death- sentence to those surrounding him. Another irony in a story rich in irony, this plot device serves as both a metaphor for much that happens in the novel as well as a further point of intersection between Marie- Lauren Werner. A beautifully-crafted novel with an interesting, important theme, Doerr’s attention to detail—significant, pervasive detail—is one of the things that makes this piece of historical fiction not only a compelling read but also a work of art.
What a great title for a book. In the spiritual tradition of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert continues her literary search for meaning in The Signature of All Things, a historical novel about the Whittacres, a fictional family of botanists who emigrate from England’s Kew Gardens area to Philadelphia in the early 19th century. And, as readers seeking a good story, we happily tag along with her.
Though far from a ‘grabs-you-by-the-seat-of-the-pants’ novel, The Signature of All Things is a thoughtful and worthwhile read. The story begins with family patriarch Henry Whittacre, whose humble beginnings belie his remarkable quest for knowledge about earth’s flora, leading him to a life of adventure, discovery, and, ultimately, great wealth. The main focus of the story, however, is his intellectually arduous daughter, Alma, who eventually enters the rarified circle of naturalist Charles Darwin.
But The Signature of All Things is more than a good story about the inception of natural selection. It’s also a philosophical quest into the value of an individual’s life. And that’s what distinguishes it from other historical novels about interesting albeit arcane subjects. Reminiscent of Ann Patchett’s The State of Wonder, Gilbert’s novel presents the myriad species of moss as a compelling example of evolution at work, then invites us into the mind of a brilliant botanist who seeks to understand not only the natural world, but the spiritual as well.
Wow. If this wasn’t an interesting book…. I went from loving it to hating it to loving it again. It’s beautifully written, not in a literary sense, but in terms of its economy of language, precision of diction, etc. And I loved the mixed-media format, from e-mails between Bernadette and her arch rival, Audrey, to narrative passages told from daughter Bee’s point-of-view to Sonia’s, the ‘admin’s’, frank and funny posts.
Really funny, most of this book! In short, it’s about a wacky family in Seattle, Washington, whose life centers around a sickly thirteen-year-old girl and her ‘unusual’ (to say the least) parents. Beginning with an introduction to the Branchs’ quirky home life, the story takes off when Bernadette’s neighbor complains the Branchs’ blackberry bushes are invading her backyard, an enormous issue because said neighbor (Audrey) is hosting an outdoor fundraiser for the private school their children both attend. Ultimately, as the title suggests, Bernadette goes missing, which sets off a cavalcade of events that take us as far away as the South Pole.
Where I got bogged down was in Bernadette’s backstory–from her years as an aspiring architect in Los Angeles to her current life in Seattle, a place which baffles and confounds her with its 5-way stop lights and its curiously polite denizens, a population almost ‘Canadian’ in its deference. Despite Semple’s deft and humorous treatment, the pace slowed here as these narratives morphed into digressive rants instead of serving to advance the story.
What kept me reading throughout, though, were Semple’s acerbic observations about people, places, things, and the delightful chaos of Bernadette’s daily life. What drew me in at the end, especially, was Bee’s impassioned quest for her mother and Bernadette’s own self-awareness–which elevated the story from simple comedy to a moving narrative replete with pathos, regret, and, ultimately, love.