LaRose, by Louise Erdrich

This is a beautifully written novel from 2016, the language even more beautiful than I can remember from other Erdrich novels. But it is also not an easy novel to follow. Not because of the magic realism that reflects the Indian heritage— with bodies existing outside themselves, or with the dead showing up in the real world. No, it is because the author again shifts her perspective too much. She delays here in making connections that the reader needs, that at least this reader does. This problem arises for me primarily when new characters appear on the scene, and what is not clear is their relationship to the characters I am already familiar with. Or why they belong in this novel at all.

This is the story of two families, the Iron family and the Ravich family. And the novel begins beautifully and dramatically when Landreaux Iron, out hunting, aims at a deer but tragically kills five year old Dusty Ravich, the only son of Pete and Nola Ravich and the best friend of his own son, LaRose. Following Indian tradition, Landeaux and his wife Emmaline eventually offer to share their son LaRose, Rusty’s best friend, with the Ravich family, offering him as a replacement for Dusty. This decision took my breath away, and opened up so many possibilities for this novel.

And to compound this heartbreaking situation, these two families are very close. For Landreaux and Pete are also best friends, and all the children of these two families often play together. Moreover, Landreaux’s wife Emmaline is a half sister of Dusty’s mother, and, while she loves her own son, she realizes Nola is heartbroken at the loss of her son.

What gives this novel much of it reality is the continuing interaction among the children of both families. Particularly by LaRose. He has been named for a long string of LaRoses in his family, most of whom were women. They were also healers, acting to preserve Indian traditions, and this is a role the boy now plays. What is also intriguing is that he becomes comfortable living with both the Iron and the Ravich families. And that both families accept this. For a while. He especially gets along with Maggie Ravich, who grows into a prominent character. She becomes particularly effective when Emmaline insists that LaRose return to the Iron family, and Maggie’s mother Nola becomes despondent at his loss. Whereupon Maggie, aided by LaRose, works to free her mother from thoughts of suicide.

But then we return to the men and to a major plot point. A rather dramatic one, but one which explains the presence of a mysterious Romeo Puyat, who has long been resentful of Landreaux for reasons unknown. In fact, the reason for even his presence in this novel early on has not been clear. But now we learn that when both boys were five or so, they met at an Indian boarding school, and that later Landreaux persuaded Romeo to escape with him. But when they were in hiding, Landreaux accidentally injured his pal, and the pain from the injury turned Romeo into a drug addict and later, as he searched for drugs, into an investigator of the town’s secrets.

Romeo has long resented his injury and the accompanying addiction that ruined his marriage, and has long plotted revenge. He now convinces Pete Ravich that Landreaux was drunk when he killed Pete’s son, and could even have saved the boy if he had not run away. He tells this story convinced that it will prompt Pete to kill Landreaux in revenge. And this drama fills much of the novel’s finale, tying together the two families even more. But it also introduces a major change in the atmosphere of the novel.

Indeed, Erdrich milks this plotting for its suspense. If only the outcome weren’t so anti-climactic, as if she realized that violence would not be in keeping with this quiet story of two Indian families. Evidence for this is that she closes the novel with a graduation party for Romeo’s son Hollis, who has been living with the Irons, another cause of his father’s resentment. This recreates the family atmosphere before the death of Rusty, the two families once again acting in harmony and also forgiving each other. The party concludes with a blend of modern American culture and Indian culture, but overall this final chapter barely fits the events of this novel.

According to Mary Gordon in The New York Times Book Review, Erdrich is asking in this novel whether a good man “can do the worst thing possible and still be loved.” And this party, Gordon says, expresses the forgiveness that the two families feel. That it wipes out the allure of revenge, with even a proud Romeo attending this party honoring his son.

The richness of this novel stems from the Indian culture of these two families. The gift of LaRose to the Raviches is, of course, the strongest evidence of that culture. As is their cooperation and shared perspective. But it is also present in the magic moments when the dead are present, when living creatures rise overhead and look down on their own bodies, and in the small traditions both families observe. Of course, this is a trademark of Erdrich novels, in which her characters work to preserve their Indian heritage in modern day America.

One development, however, seems out of place. Erdrich, a Catholic, introduces here a priest, Father Travis. He is young, serious, and somewhat naïve, but he is sought out by the Indian families for advice. In this role, he is an effective character. However, the author has him fall in love with Emmaline, even having a tryst with her, and I am not sure why this element is introduced. To show he is human? For it has no connection with the novel’s other events. Nor are we given Emmaline’s own perspective. Why does she get involved with the priest? And, at the end, Father Travis is simply replaced by a less consequential priest. Overall, Travis plays a legitimate role as an adviser to these families, but why Erdrich has him fall in love is unclear.

Nevertheless, Erdrich novels continue to interest me. And not least because she is a Catholic. And while religious concerns are not always paramount in her works, I do often share the perspective with which she delineates her characters and their lives. In this case, what interests me is her concern for the conflict between revenge and forgiveness. (May, 2018)


The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch (2013) is quite a novel, quite an ambitious novel. Tartt writes here everything she knows about life and everything she knows about art, as well as about how they intersect, how the artist is inspired at one moment in time and how the viewer is inspired on seeing the same art 400 years later.

This work is about such a work of art, a classic portrait of a goldfinch, and how fate has put it into the hands of Theo Decker, the hero of this novel, when he is only thirteen. It has been put into his hands by a dazed and dying older man named Blackwell after a terrorist bomb has exploded in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The traumatized Blackwell believes he is saving the painting from a violent past in Europe.

The novel is not about the explosion, however. It is about the emptiness that that explosion leaves in the heart of Theo when his mother is killed in the same explosion. Indeed, she becomes so alive in even a few pages at the start of this novel—especially when he returns to their apartment after the explosion and keeps waiting for his mother to join him—that we feel the emptiness of a world without her and immediately understand how and why Theo feels so alone and disconnected. It is a situation I could relate to, having lost my own parents early, and so I identified with Theo and became fascinated by his story. How was this boy going to survive such a tragedy?

The result is a novel that evolves into three parts. The first part, and the most successful, follows an “orphaned” Theo as he is taken in by the Park Avenue family of his best friend, Andy. At first, the Seymour family takes pity on him, but his goodness earns their respect. He also calls on Blackwell’s partner Hobie, who repairs furniture in the couple’s antique store. But then he is wrenched out of this scene by the re-emergence of his gambling father, and I did not look forward to his move out west to his father’s unstructured life.

In a vividly described Las Vegas, Theo meets Boris, a mysterious, street-smart Polish/Russian youth who will become central to this story, as Theo moves from the disciplined household of his mother to an undisciplined world of alcohol, drugs, and adventure. Boris will become a force in this book, clever at persuading Theo to defy convention and take risks. But this vivid boy is too one-dimensional for me, seeming to serve the author as a means to advance the plot and never really changing as that plot advances.

The first part continues, as Boris persuades an unhappy Theo to return to New York, where he once was happy. Theo’s friend Andy has died, and so he turns to Hobie, who comes to trust him with more and more responsibility. But Theo has concealed one thing, that he still has the painting of the goldfinch. He has carried it, without telling anyone, from his mother’s apartment to the Seymours, to his father’s house out west, and now back to Hobie’s store. It seems to fill the gap left by the loss of his mother, and he is filled with guilt for hiding it, but is also afraid he will be punished if he turns it in.

This first part works, not least because the restoration and antique business of Hobie is so real. Which required considerable research by the author, but is worked in smoothly until we believe in Hobie and the business. In addition, Theo is fascinated by Pippa, a young girl who also survived the explosion. And who will be a love interest as elusive as the goldfinch itself.

But then part two jumps eight years, and Theo is a young man in charge of the business side of the antique shop. He becomes less attractive as a hero, however, and my identification with him is diminished. Because he sells restored antiques as real when he learns the shop is losing money under Hobie. He wants to save the shop, but does the end justify the means? My reservations are compounded, moreover, by a pharmaceutical addiction that Boris has encouraged, and that reflects Theo’s sense of guilt, because of both his financial activities and his continual possession of the Met’s missing painting. Equally worrisome is his pursuit of Pippa.

And now Boris returns, and the novel enters its third part, which is an adventure story. For Boris reveals he has deceived Theo. He has made off with the painting, and it is in Europe. But he has a plan to retrieve it. He will not tell Theo the plan, however, and its execution in Europe is confusing to the reader. It is suffice to say that there are meetings with mysterious men along with gunfire and death, as if Tartt has decided to forgoe the guilt and moral ambiguities of her story and to sustain reader interest with action.

I think this strategy is a mistake. The novel loses its depth and emphasizes its surface action. Proof of a missing potential seems to be in the final coda, as, a year later, Theo reviews what has happened to him, and comes to some interesting conclusions about life being short but often cruel, while both human love and the love of art can last forever.

Tartt describes the artist painting the goldfinch: “the brush strokes he permits us to see, up close, for exactly what they are—hand worked flashes of pigment, the very passage of the bristles visible—and then, at a distance, the miracle, or the joke…the slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint and yet also feather and bone.” And then, she continues: “It’s the place where reality strikes the ideal, where a joke becomes serious and anything serious is a joke. The magic point where every idea and its opposite are equally true.”

She continues, with Theo concluding: “I’ve come to believe there is no truth beyond illusion. Because, between where “reality” on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. And—I would argue as well—all love.”

This is the exploration of art and the human awareness of love, that I wish this novel had treated once Theo’s guilt at retaining the painting has begun to trouble him. And not relied on the exaggerated character of a Boris who dominates both Theo and the action of this novel, and as a consequence the European finale that rightly belongs to another novel. (November, 2015)

The Sea, by John Banville

This 2005 work is a beautifully written novel in which nothing happens, and yet everything happens. It is about one man, art historian Max Morden, as he recalls two incidents from his past. First, his poor youth when he met the wealthy Graces at a seaside resort. And then his maturity when he lost his wife Anna to cancer. And we do not realize until the end that what links these two significant events in his life is death.

The entire novel concerns these memories, as he revisits the seaside resort of Ballyless, Ireland, fifty years later. He stays at the same house in which the Graces stayed one summer, and his stream of consciousness memory flits back and forth from the present to both that youthful summer and the later harrowing months in which his wife died.

The summer-house, called the Cedars, is run in the present by the elderly Miss Vavasour, who has an unclear relationship with one resident, the Colonel, a relationship which Max thinks he interrupts. But he is more into his memories of that summer in which, at age ten, he met the stout, elderly Carlo Grace; his beautiful wife Connie, on whom Max develops a crush; their twin children Myles and Chloe, both Max’s age; and Rose, a young woman who is their governess.

Max has returned to the Cedars to try to recover from the loss of his wife. At first, we think it is because he has fond memories of that summer and the Grace family—such as Mrs. Grace adjusting her body to let him view her panties—and that reliving those childhood moments of happiness will ease his sadness. But eventually we realize it is to understand that summer that he returns. For it was just as unsettling to him as was the loss of his wife.

As the present feeds upon the past, and as the memories flood together, the reader is rarely lost. Except, he does not know where the novel is going. It seems to be a memory novel about Max, but then it turns out to be rather different when a surprise comes. The surprise works, and we look at both Max and the novel in a different way. We see that this is a work about life itself, rather than about Max’s life. And it is more about death than it is about life, and the mysteriousness of death that is part of life. And equally so, it is about memory. About Max’s memory versus reality.

The weakest part of the novel, perhaps because it is the least developed, is Max’s relationship with his daughter Claire, whom he bows to at the end, as an old man, no longer able to resist her. But also difficult to relate to is Anna’s picking up photography in her final months, as if by preserving reality she is holding on to it. It seems to be two cases of Banville fleshing out Max’s life but not extensively so, because his life is not the point of the tale. The point is the impact on him of two dramatic events.

The sea of the title is ever-present, drawing these characters to the resort. And it plays a significant role at the end. But it hovers more as a presence than as a threat. It is most symbolic on the final page, where Max says that it offered a gentle swell. “I was lifted briefly and carried a little way towards the shore and then was set down on my feet as before, as if nothing had happened.” Thus, whatever high drama we confront, we adjust to it. And life goes on. It is just “another of the great world’s shrugs of indifference.”

There is also a perplexing line, the last: “…and it was as if I were walking into the sea.” This is Max as he follows his nurse back into the house. Does it simply mean that he is adjusting to the loss of his wife, as above? Or does it refer to a motivation of Chloe? To be further studied…

But, mainly, there is the drama of the ending. It is shocking, but to me it is not clear. What does it mean? It centers on Max’s childhood experience. But it is less concerned with a loss of innocence than one might expect, and is more about grief, a grief that echoes Max’s loss of his wife.

This climax suggests that the Grace family is acting out a private drama, a drama that Max is not meant to see, but a drama that Rose is willing to share with him. This seems to be crystallized in a late paragraph, after Max has witnessed death, when he writes: “And I thought, too, of the day of the picnic and of her [Rose] sitting behind me on the grass and looking where I was avidly looking and seeing what was not meant for me at all.”

Perhaps she is still willing at the end, after she has witnessed a sexual episode between Max and Chloe. And wants Max to realize the people he is dealing with. But what is he dealing with? It seems to be a hypersexualized Chloe at ten. And a mute Myles. Who are they? And how significant is the earlier reference to the webbing between Myles’ toes?

Also significant is the sentence: “After all, why should I be less susceptible than the next melodramatist to the tale’s demand for a neat closing twist?” Which refers to the structure of the novel more than its content. And the entire novel demonstrates that Banville is aware of structure.

For example, the dramatic surprise in the story line is followed by another surprise, centering on issues of identity. First, one person becomes another person, and then makes a confession that raises an issue of sexual identity. Now, this does explain more than one earlier dramatic scene. But it also suggests that not only was Max’s youthful sexuality confused, but so was his understanding of what he witnessed back then.

To sum up, this is a deep and satisfying novel, but one that requires extra attention from the reader. It also requires patience to appreciate the rich language, the alternating story lines, and the character depth that is hidden beneath the surface. It is understandable why this novel earned the Man Booker Award, and yet why the author considered the award a surprise, believing his novel to be pure art, wheereas previous awards have gone to more commercial, more popular novels.

This definitely encourages me to read further novels by Banville. He explores the interiors of his characters and the major issues we all face, especially that of death. Plus he has a rich style. No wonder he says he writes only a few paragraphs at a sitting, compared to pages when he is writing as Benjamin Black. (May, 2015)