Monday, May 31, 2010

Wharton’s masterpiece remains a very powerful tale

I do not usually write about novels I am teaching, but after reading this novel I assigned to my graduate class, I thought I would write about it here. It is a classic American novel, and is one that bears rereading from time to time.

The House of Mirth

Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (400 pages, Everyman’s Library, $22) was first published in 1905. It tells the story of Lily Bart, a beautiful young girl who seems poised to make an important marriage in the upper class world of early twentieth-century New York.

Lily has been brought up by her mother to marry well, and now under the guardianship of her aunt, she seems destined to do so. Country house visits are meant to throw young people together, and the novel begins with one such weekend, at which Lily has as her objective the young heir Mr. Percy Gryce.

Lily is able to charm Gryce, and she sees how easy it will be to handle him as she has been trained to do. But somehow her heart isn’t in it. She sees it as a game that she cannot really bring herself to play.

Instead she goes for a walk with her friend Selden, who is himself partly in love with her, but he also wants to help her and support her in her pursuits.

Things do not go right for Lily, however. She allows herself to take financial “tips” from one of her hosts, and he seems to expect something in return. She is appalled by this and looks forward to her own independence. But her aunt is becoming so irritated by Lily’s behavior—she gambles at bridge, for instance, because all her friends expect it of her, while in her aunt’s generation no such thing was ever thought of—that she has determined to disinherit her.

When Lily realizes how little she has to live on, she tries various ways to survive. At first she becomes the companion of a rather fast and unpopular nouveau riche about town, and although this keeps her physically comfortable for a time, she knows, and Selden reminds her, that it is doing little for her reputation.

Later other male friends step in to offer help, but in each case they expect her to compromise her integrity. One, Ned Rosedale, very prominent and wealthy, propositions her in very clear and uncompromising terms. Lily is almost tempted to accept this offer, but she cannot let herself fall this low, and instead she takes work in a hat-making shop.

She is not good at this work, and she becomes depressed at the very thought of it. Eventually she leaves, but then it is even less clear how she will live. For a time it seems that Selden will help, but even he becomes disillusioned after one too many misunderstandings.

Lily clings to a cousin, who is a kind of inspiration, but they do not have enough in common to make a go of it. Instead Lily struggles on her own. She forces herself to use what little money she has to repay debts that she feels leave her vulnerable to the men of society.

In the end, Lily cannot withstand the pressures that are overwhelming her. She succumbs to her own inability to learn how to live at ease with herself in the world.

Wharton tells this vividly feminist tale in a moving and thoughtful way. We see vividly what is happening to Lily, but we are all powerless to stop it. This is part of the power of the novel.

Edith Wharton

Get it at Vroman's, Powell's, or Amazon.

Anita Shreve tells a bittersweet story of an American couple in Kenya

I have not read a novel by Anita Shreve before; but I know she writes bestsellers, and I was interested to see what they were like. As it happens, I was in a town with no book store, so I looked for a novel in Ralph’s supermarket. This was the best I could do, but I could have done far far worse.

A Change in Altitude

A Change in Altitude (307 pages, Back Bay Books, $14.99) is the latest of Anita Shreve’s many bestselling and well-respected novels. This one tells the story of Margaret and Patrick, a young and happily married American couple who have relocated for several years to Kenya. Patrick is a medical researcher who has had the opportunity to go to Kenya to study local diseases. In return for this, he runs clinics throughout the country. Margaret worked as a photographer for a local newspaper in Boston before agreeing to join her husband, but once in Kenya she has started worrying a bit about what she can do.

The novel is set during Jomo Kenyata’s presidency—sometime in the early nineteen seventies—and the political tensions are palpable. White expatriates tend to live in neighborhoods that are fairly isolated from the African population; but even so, they seem to be in constant danger from thefts and violence. Before they have been in Kenya even a year, Margaret and Patrick have their car stolen, their rented house ransacked, and their servant raped. They are resilient enough when these things happen, but they also take a considerable toll on their emotional life.

Kenya puts a strain on their marriage too. The biggest strain occurs because of an accident that transpires during their attempt to climb Mount Kenya. They are attempting the 17,000 ft. mountain with local friends—Arthur and Diana, a British couple who have been in Kenya for a long time, and another Dutch couple who are aloof and generally irritating. The climb is tough for Margaret, and she constantly feels that she is holding everyone back. Arthur is solicitous, and tries to encourage her. His attentions to Margaret do not go unnoticed, though, and both Patrick and Diana seem affected by Margaret’s seeming willingness to accept Arthur’s kindnesses.

Later on during that climb, there is a terrible tragedy, and everyone, even Patrick and Margaret herself, feel that she has somehow been responsible. This causes a great tension in the marriage, and Patrick and Margaret start suspecting each other of unfaithfulness and treating each other badly in day to day life. When things have gotten about as bad as they could be, Margaret meets someone at work—she has found work as a photographer for a local newspaper—who is handsome and sensitive and he seems to offer an alternative to Patrick.

Rafiq, the Pakistani/African/British journalist who befriends her, seems to understand all she is suffering, and she opens up to him as she hasn’t been able to open up to Patrick. Still, there are enough obstacles to having an extra-marital affair, not least of which is Margaret’s own sense that things with Patrick are simply not settled.

When the one year anniversary of their disastrous climb of Mount Kenya comes round, Patrick gets the bright idea that it would be good for them to climb the mountain once more. He hopes that they will be able to quiet their demons and rediscover their love for one another.

Whether or not they are able to do that is a question I will not answer. Suffice it to say, this second climb is momentous, although perhaps not in the ways that either of them has expected.

I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. At times it feels that Anita Shreve is putting her characters through some kind of experiment of her own; but in the end, I would have to agree that she gets inside them to very good purpose.

Anita Shreve

At Vroman's, Amazon and Powell's.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

E. M. Forster’s gay classic can stand the test of time.

I have not read Maurice in some time. I have seen the Ivory-Merchant film, of course, and I thought I remembered the novel in detail. But on this reading, I recognized how much I misremembered. I also recognized what a truly great novel it is.


E. M. Forster wrote Maurice (255 pages, Norton, $13.95) in 1913-1914, but as many people are aware, it was not published until after his death in 1971. In his “Terminal Note,” Forster makes clear that he did not feel he could publish the work because he had insisted on a “happy ending.” “Unless the Wolfenden Report becomes law,” he said, “it will probably have to remain in manuscript. If it had ended unhappily, with a lad hanging from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors. But the lovers get away unpunished and consequently recommend crime” (250). As it happens, the Wolfenden Report, England’s bill decriminalizing homosexuality, actually passed (after much debate) in 1967. But Forster makes an important point here. The very fact that he had decided in 1913 to write a novel of this kind means that this novel was almost a generation before its time.

Of course, there were heady days in the early twentieth century, with Edward Carpenter writing about the possibilities of male love, and private Englishmen and women, in Bloomsbury and elsewhere, exhibiting a “devil-may-care” attitude about same-sex love. If Maurice emerges from that context, as did Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (both published some fifteen years later), then we can perhaps understand how Forster was able to write such a novel, even if he was not able to publish it in his lifetime.

Several features of the novel make Maurice interesting historically. In the first place, Forster decided to make Maurice (pronounced “Morris”), the central character, nothing like himself. Maurice is handsome, athletic, and a little slow. Forster likes him, but he is also terribly condescending to this hero. But Forster wanted to make a hero who could feel and whose feelings were not bottled up because of some hyper-intelligence. The hyper-intelligent characters in the book, Maurice’s Cambridge friends Risley, who is loosely based on Lytton Strachey, and Clive Durham, are isolated from their own feelings, either by irony, in Risely’s case, or in carefully articulated Hellenism, in Clive’s.

Clive is Maurice’s first love, but because of what we would now call his internalized homophobia, Clive cannot allow himself to admit his love for Maurice. He feels it and acts on it for a while, but even when he does he insists on a Platonic relationship—in his Hellenism he thinks of this as the highest form of male love—but he is always unhappy about the relationship and finds a way to marry and distance himself from Maurice shortly after Cambridge.

Maurice is distraught about Clive’s turning to women, and he himself consults doctors and even a hypnotist to figure out what he can do. When he visits Clive and his wife, he feels so desperate that he makes up the fiction of a girl he is dating. There is such happiness in response to this lie that he realizes he can never be at home with these people.

While his increasing discomfort with his social world is intensifying, Maurice meets a lower-middle class fellow, Alec Scudder, who is working as gamekeeper at Clive’s estate. When they first meet, Maurice treats him as little more than a servant, but soon he is noticing Scudder and then finds himself in bed with him.

This is not a happy bond at first. Maurice is worried about what he has done—it seems an offense against Clive’s generosity to have slept with Alec in the guest bedroom—and he wonders how he could ever have a relationship with someone of Alec’s social position. He also imagines that he has put himself in an awkward position and Scudder might be able to blackmail him if he chooses.

When Maurice and Alec meet, seemingly to part, there is great tension at first. But after they have insulted one another a bit, they realize that they are enjoying one another’s company. Then they have to figure out what to do about their lives. That is not easy to be sure, and not everyone is pleased with the ending Forster chooses—Lytton Strachey gave the couple six weeks at most—but it could also be described as a great ending to a great novel. That's how I would describe it, anyway.

E. M. Forster

Available at Powell's, Amazon.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Chris Cleave takes the sentimental approach to illegal immigration

Chris Cleave’s latest novel tells the story of a Nigerian girl who has made her way to England after trouble in her country has nearly destroyed her. This is a deeply felt tale of the life of the undocumented.

Little Bee

The unassuming heroine of Little Bee (271 pages, Simon and Schuster, $14) is a young Nigerian girl who has somehow made her way to a detention center north of London. As she tells the story, a friend in the center has offered some favors to the guard that has got them early release. But because they are released without “papers,” it is not exactly clear what their options are.

Litte Bee, as the girl has renamed herself, is clutching the driver’s license of a British journalist with whom she somehow crossed paths in Nigeria. She is determined to make her way to the address on the license, in Kingston-Upon-Thames, which is a long way from the detention center. But make her way there she does, and as she does we are introduced to the family to whom she will make her appeal.

Andrew and Sarah O’Rourke, and their four-year-old son Charlie, live in the suburbs. Andrew and Sarah have both worked as journalists, but when the narrative begins, Andrew has just killed himself and Sarah is desperately trying to understand what happened. Love had gone out of their marriage sometime before, but the real crisis seems to stem from a traumatic encounter they had while vacationing in Nigeria.

Tourist brochures did not make it clear that bloody battles for oil-fields were happening all over Nigeria at the time, and when Sarah and Andrew wander out of their hotel compound in order to walk on the beautiful beach, they walk right into the violence that has been brewing around them. Two girls approach them and ask to come back to the hotel with them. The hotel guard who has come to find them insists that the girls cannot go back, but before a final decision is made, the thugs who are chasing the girls emerge on the beach, and a violent encounter ensues.
Andrew and Sarah escape, but not without scars both physical and psychological; and they imagine that the girls, whom they have not been able to save, have been destroyed by the gang. Imagine Sarah’s surprise, then, when Little Bee shows up on her doorstep in Kingston on the day of Andrew’s funeral.

The two voices of the narrative—that of Little Bee and that of Sarah—between them manage to tell the whole story of the violence in Nigeria and the almost equally bleak story of Sarah and Andrew’s marriage. Before Nigeria, Sarah had begun an affair with the handsome Lawrence, whom she met at the Home Office when trying to do an interview. Lawrence is a saving grace to her, but when Andrew finds out about the affair, it destroys him. Nigeria was in fact an attempt to put their marriage back together. That attempt failed miserably.

Sarah welcomes Little Bee to what she thinks of as her broken life, and she hopes that the two might be able to help each other. At first this does seem to work. Little Bee is wonderful with Sarah’s young son Charlie, who mostly likes to imagine himself as Batman, and she seems to understand Sarah’s distress. At the same time, Sarah offers the young African girl a home and a true introduction to British life.
Unfortunately Lawrence does not see Little Bee as a good thing. After all, he does work in the Home Office, which handles questions of immigration, and she is undocumented. He worries too that she will pull Sarah away from him, and he is ready to confront the girl and turn her in to the authorities. But that is not so easy when he tries to threaten the girl. She knows what men are like—the men in her country have taught her how to be afraid—and she is ready to fight back to save herself.

The denouement is as interesting as it is powerful. These various forces in play make it look like these people are destined to destroy each other, but that is not exactly what happens. It could almost be said that they grow. Bu they grow in ways that do not necessarily conform to what we would like to think of as a happy ending.

Chris Cleave

Available at Amazon, Powell's and Vroman's.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

David Corbett places the border crisis in the context of the Iraq War

I had not read a novel by David Corbett, but I was in my favorite book store in LA (Book Soup) and this book caught my eye. I am glad it did. It is a complex story compellingly told.


Do They Know I’m Running

David Corbett’s latest novel, Do They Know I’m Running (452 pages, Ballantine Books, $15) tells not one harrowing story, but two. In the present, Corbett talks about a group of Salvadoran immigrants who live in Northern California. A hardworking man, Tío Fausto, and his wife, live with two nephews, Godo, an Iraq War vet who is badly scarred and still struggling with memories of the war, and Roque, a handsome young guy who shows promise as a musician and who tries to stay out of trouble. In the past, the past at least of several of the characters, he replays specific scenes in the Iraq War with devastating effect.

When the novel opens, Roque is carrying on an affair with an older woman, but she is pushing him off, in part because his innocence makes her feel guilty. She can’t let herself feel anything for him: life has taught her that love brings only disappointment.

In any case, Roque is destined for a different fate. When it happens that Tío Fausto is arrested at work and deported as an “illegal immigrant,” Roque is nominated to go to El Salvador and bring him back. Roque and Godo are legal—their mother was in the state when they were born and she died giving birth to Roque. Fausto’s son Happy, who is himself illegal, nominates Roque for this difficult job, telling him that it is time he take on some adult responsibilities in the family. In addition to transporting his uncle, Roque is asked to pick up a Palestinian as well. Samir is someone who saved his life in Iraq, and he feels that he owes it to him to help him in this way.

Roque takes all this on with resignation, but he knows what is expected of him, and he is willing to do his best. In order to pay the high fee that is required to guarantee a group of three men passage back to the states, Happy runs a complicated scam with local gang organizers. He pretends he is bringing in a shipment of cocaine and gets some underworld types to finance the venture in hopes of a big commission. Happy then tries to sell this information, as it were, to the FBI in exchange for resident status for him and his Dad.

This is a great plan, I suppose, but everything about it goes haywire. The gang leader insists that Happy bring in Godo, who although he is still living in the nightmare of war memories, is great with guns and a hot shot with naked aggression when it is needed. As Corbett tells us this uncomfortable tale, he offers flashbacks to Iraq. Both Happy and Godo served there and each has seen his share of war atrocities, and both are trying to get out from under the memories that haunt their every waking moment.

Meanwhile Roque finds that he is way over his head in El Salvador. The characters he has to deal with are hardened criminals and he feels like an innocent in their midst. When the boss he is dealing with tells him to take a girl, Lupe, and give her to the thug they will meet at the U.S. border in Mexico, he at first thinks nothing of it. But then he hears Lupe sing, and he is moved by the sorrow in her voice; before too long, needless to say, he falls in love with her. She wants nothing to do with him at first. She is sullen and battered, and she too feels that love isn’t what it is cracked up to be.

As they—Roque, Lupe, Fausto, and Samir—make their way through Central America, every phase of the passage is like a war of its own. There are renegade soldiers, violent police, drug lords, gang members, and every kind of gun slinging tough guy at every step of the way. They are shot at, run off the road, and chased until they barely know who they are. Corbett is making the point that this world is as tough as the war that Happy and Godo fought in the middle east.

Happy and Godo, meanwhile, screw up their plan, in part because of their greed, in part because Roque and his crew needed more money, and in part because the suppressed violence of their gang just couldn’t be controlled. After an attempted theft of guns leads to murder, even the FBI can’t help them, and they take off to Mexico to escape the law.

The two groups do meet up at last, and by then Roque and Lupe have found each other in the soul-baring experience that faces them in Central America. Fausto is killed and their guides are too, and they find themselves having to make their own way. When they meet Happy and Godo, and Happy is still insisting that Roque hand over the girl to the Mexican thug, there is a parting of the ways.

The novel began with a young man and girl struggling across the border, and that is the way it ends. A local man is running at them with a shotgun, and Roque is trying to insist that he is an American.

Corbett has told a wonderful tale. It is deeply moving about Iraq, but it is also chillingly eye-opening about the border wars as well. This is a California tale to match with the best of them.

David Corbett

Pick it up at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Tom Rachman tells of the demise of an international newspaper by looking at the folks who run it.

I couldn’t resist this highly-praised account of a newspaper in decline. It sounded like it might take the pulse of our times, and it does.

The Imperfectionists

In his wonderful first novel, Tom Rachman sets his tale in Rome, at the offices of a widely respected international newspaper that has fallen on hard times. Actually, The Imperfectionists (269 pages, The Dial Press, $25) tells the history of the paper in interchapters that relate tersely and pointedly how the paper was founded and how it failed. It makes gripping reading for anyone who worries, even vaguely, about the demise of newspaper reading in the twenty-first century, and in that sense alone it is a sort of moral tale.

Far more compelling, however, is the tale he tells about the people who worked at the paper throughout its heyday and into its decline. Each chapter focuses on a different individual, ranging from obituary writers and copy-editors to managing editors, heads of accounts, and the editor-in-chief.

Each of these chapters tells a different kind of tale—the newspaper staff is comprised of a range of wildly different characters—but they all share a vague dissatisfaction with the newspaper, the working conditions at the office, and even expatriate life itself.

Rachman has a wonderful sense of individual reactions to difficult situations, and he is especillay good at creating the news editor, Craig Menzies, and his boss, Kathleen Solson, editor-in-chief. These two characters are colleagues rather than friends, and their interaction at the paper is rather simple. Kathleen bosses Craig around and he does whatever she says in a spirit of resignation and frustration.

In their personal lives, however, they are utterly distinct. Craig is happily married to Annika, another American, and he tinkers in the basement with scientific experiments. He worries that Annika is not fully occupied, but she takes her Roman life in stride and is pleased to be connected to someone as kind and hardworking as her husband seems to be. When discord seeps into this relationship, it is because of the gossipy nature of the world they live in. Craig ends the marriage rather than deal with the insecurity that his wife’s potential lapses cause him. He finds himself distancing himself from her, even though he knows that life without her will be miserable. He uses the job in order to hide his feelings from himself.

Kathleen’s story is different. She worked at the paper early in her career, and then she returned to Washington, D.C. where she rose up in the newspaper world there. When she is offered the job at the international paper, she feels that it will be a chance to earn her stripes as an editor. She goes in having made all sorts of demands about improving the paper and extending its range, with reporters in far-flung capitals, and so on. But none of these agreements are honored by the company that owns the paper, and from the first she feels frustrated at what she is able to accomplish.

She is frustrated in her personal life too. A strong and very attractive woman, she tries to take up with the man, Dario, whom she left behind when she went to the states. But he is married, happily it seems, and he does not want to become involved again. He tells her why he is no longer attracted to her—it has to do with her domineering personality—and she is more hurt than she lets on.

Other characters are equally interesting—some of the stories are amusing and some are menacing—but each one strikes a chord. By the end of the novel, you know what happened to the paper and the people who were most affected by its collapse. The effect is grand.

This is a wonderful debut novel from a talented writer. I will be watching for more novels from Tom Rachman.

Tom Rachman

Available at Vroman's, Amazon and Powell's.

Katherine Shonk explores a young wife who tries to cope with her husband’s suicide.

Katherine Shonk’s premise does not sound promising: a young husband has killed himself and the devastated wife tries to explain to herself why he did it. But Shonk tells the tale in a way that makes it more engaging than you would imagine.

Happy Now?

Happy Now? (262 pages, Farrar Strauss, $25) is Katherine Shonk’s look at grief. Claire Kessler has just lost her husband, Jay, who killed himself by jumping off the balcony at a friend’s party on Valentine’s Day. Any Valentine’s Day suicide would be tough, but Claire and Jay had their first date on Valentine’s Day a couple of years before, and this makes the suicide even more painful to the young wife.

The novel opens after the wake and funeral. Claire is staying with her sister and husband, in the coach house/guest house behind their house; and she is surviving on the casseroles and baked goods that all her friends have brought by in her time of crisis.

Claire is unable at first to do anything but sleep. She cannot see a therapist, as everyone recommends, nor can she join a support group, read the suicide “binder” that Jay left behind, or even talk to anyone outside her immediate family. She is close to her sister, and they can cry together well. Her divorced parents are also on hand: her mother hectors her to get on with her life, and her quiet and sensitive father offers her his mute but constant support.

The novel proceeds by following Claire as she takes on each of these challenges—the therapist, the support group, the binder—as as she does, Shonk gives a portrait of the marriage that went wrong. Clair did not find out about Jay’s depressive side until they had been dating for quite a while. When she found him depressed and uncommunicative, moreover, she worried, but he tried to allay her fears and tell her that he was working on his depression and that therapy was helping.

By the time Jay and Claire married, she thought they were managing the depression all right. But really she was kidding herself, for Jay’s spells got more frequent and more devastating, and she could not begin to figure out what to do about them. It wasn’t just that he shut her out when he was depressed, but he also made her feel more than useless, almost as if she were part of the problem rather than the solution.

Of course She blames herself for his suicide, even though she knows this is unreasonable. She also feels deep anger at the selfishness of his final act. He planned to kill himself at the party because she was not going to attend. When she showed up at the party to surprise him, he greeted her warmly and then went ahead and killed himself anyway. This really upsets her. She tries to explain this to Jay’s (young and attractive) female therapist, but the therapist won’t reassure her that she is not to blame. The therapist is so concerned that she not indulge any of Jay’s confidences that Claire comes away feeling, if anything, worse.

The same thing happens when she goes to a support group. The flyer was misleading, and instead of sharing tales of lost loved ones, she is confronted with a group of people who have all considered suicide themselves. She leaves in a huff, telling them all as she goes how utterly selfish they are.

Gradually Claire begins to deal with her grief, and as the novel ends we can feel that she is on the road to recovery.

Katherine Shonk has told a searingly beautiful tale, and out of Claire’s grief, her regrets, and her attempt to come to terms with the devastating loss, she has crafted a very positive effect.

Katherine Shonk

Pick it up at Powell's, Vroman's, and Amazon.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Fernanda Eberstadt writes a coming of age story that necessitates finding a father.

I can’t remember where I first read about Fernanda Eberstadt’s latest novel, but I know I downloaded it onto my Kindle some time ago. This weekend I was happy to find it there.


Fernanda Eberstadt’s latest novel, Rat (304 pages, Knopf, $24.95), tells the story of the young girl whose nickname suggests the unpleasant rodent of the title. But in fact, she is an engaging young girl, whom we come to know into the years of early adolescence. She lives with her single mother in a small apartment in a little village in the south of France, in an area called Pyrénées-Orientales. Rat’s mother Vanessa had a brief affair with a wealthy English tourist, and when she realized she was pregnant, she was pleased and decided to keep the child. Over the years, Gillem, as Rat’s father is called, has never met her, but he has sent child support checks to Vanessa from the moment he was sure that the child was his.

The first half, or really two-thirds, of the novel concern the relationship between Rat and her mother. Vanessa works as a brocanteuse: she buys and sells goods for the several local markets in her area. This is something of a hand to mouth existence, but she does not dip into the money that Gillem sends her, and instead she saves it for Rat. Still, she feels a smoldering anger that this man has never deigned to visit or write them directly, and Rat, who is really named Celia after Gillem’s mother, feels this resentment, and she internalizes it.

For Rat, this feeling of resentment is combined with a brooding desperation that no one really wanted her to come into the world. She gets something of a chip on her shoulder about this, and even when her sometimes distracted mother assures her that she loves her, Rat feels that she will need to find this father to find out the real story.

In the meantime, though, things at home change over time. Vanessa has a dear friend, Souad, another single mother, an African, who is dying of AIDS. After she passes, her son Morgan comes to live with Rat and her mother. At first Rat resents this intrusion: she is quite selfish in her desperation to keep her mother to herself. But in time, she comes to care for Morgan deeply, and she feels a great need to protect the African boy who is six years younger than herself.

She has friends, especially Jérôme, a slightly older boy who is her best friend, and some of his friends. In some ways, though, her mother is her closest friend. When her mother first takes up with the thoroughly unpleasant Thierry, a tall and thin slacker who is exciting for Vanessa, Rat distrusts him. Then later, when she sees him doing what could only be described as “abusing” Morgan in the middle of the night, she understandably loses her cool. Vanessa thinks she is exaggerating, as usual, and coloring things in drastic terms for effect.
Rat gets so angry about this that she sets off to find her English father. First she emails him, and then she sets out across France with Morgan in tow, ever more determined to track him down. When an email with his address and phone number comes back (after several weeks), she is overjoyed. For two minors to get across the English Channel is something of a challenge, but Rat is nothing if not resourceful, and they make it across into Southern England.

When they call Gillem, he tells them to take a taxi to London, and from there, the novel concerns relations between Rat and her father. We have been witness to the nerves with which Gillem approaches the idea of Rat, and his wife is certainly skeptical too. But when Rat arrives in London, they both fall for her.

Still it takes some time for Rat to confront matters with her father. When she finally does, after they have visited his mother, who is ailing with Alzheimer’s syndrome, there is something of a breakthrough there. She still wants to go back to her mother, as she finally decides to do, but here is a man who really does care about her, and who seems desperate to show her how deeply he cares.

This is a very touching story. Rat is a remarkable character, and the situations in both homes are richly displayed. There are wonderful comic touches here, and there is an understanding of what it means to be human too.

Fernanda Eberstadt

At Vroman's, Powell's, Amazon.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Edward O. Wilson uses a boy’s love of ants to tell an important environmental story.

I read a review of Edward O. Wilson’s novel about a boy’s naturalist obsession, and I thought it sounded like fun. I never dreamed there was as much to learn about ants, but every sentence dedicated to explaining their behavior was wonderful for someone as uninformed about the natural world as I am!


Anthill (378 pages, Norton, $24.95) is Edward O. Wilson’s first novel. Wilson is an emeritus biologist at Harvard, and he has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his non-fiction accounts of animal behavior as affected by the environment. I do not know his scientific writings, but judging by the power and elegance of this novel, I am sure they are well-written and engaging.
This novel is well-written and engaging too, and as a coming of age novel, with its personal intensities and its nearly melodramatic plot devices, one might offer little more than polite respect. But in the middle of the narrative, and for what must be a third of this nearly four hundred page novel, Wilson tells the account of an anthill near Clayville Alabama, where the hero, Raphael Semmes Cody is growing up.

We first see Cody hanging back on a hunting adventure and expressing a deep love for the natural world. He cannot imagine shooting at a living creature. Instead, we learn, he spends hours in the wilderness around Lake Nokobee, and he learns to love every creature that resides.

He has a special fascination for the ants, which seem unlike ants he has seen anywhere else. When later on, after a series of surprises in his private life, he goes off to study entomology at Florida State University, he learns that he has discovered a unique species, and his mentors there encourage him to follow their life cycle in his undergraduate Honors Thesis.

That thesis is what comprises the middle chapters of the book, and in them we learn a lot about the behavior of ants, their formation of colonies, the ways in which colonies compete with one another, and how super colonies are created, and how they die. It is hard for me to describe these chapters in a way that makes them sound interesting, but I assure you that they are. Wilson, or young Raff Cody in his youthful enthusiasm, makes a lot of slightly heavy-handed suggestions about how like human behavior this ant competition really is. Battles for survival, communal purposes, and relative size of different colonies all work into this plan. It does not really tell us too much about human interaction—the connections are too facile for it to succeed in that way—but it does help us to understand more about the ant behavior. And every detail of the lives of the differently coded individuals in the ant colony is fascinating. From the queen, who can live for over twenty years, to the nurses, the workers, the drones: every ant has a purpose and carries out that purpose for the good of the whole.

Later when Raff goes on to Harvard Law School—he has decided that law will enable him to further his environmental causes even more effectively than a Ph.D. would—Wilson attempts to describe Harvard as an anthill. Wisely, he drops this after a few cogent suggestions. The analogy would be too hard to sustain, and Raff’s story veers off in ways that the ant associations would be hard to maintain.

Nevertheless, Raff’s Harvard experience sets him up in a position to take on some of the anti-environmental forces back home, but instead of fighting them, he decides to join them. He becomes the corporate lawyer for the big developer who was his nemesis earlier and who is dead set on developing the area near the lake that Raff loves so much.

The last section of this novel plays out this drama, as Raff makes friends among environmentalists and tries to remain true to himself as he works for the developer. This all comes to a head in surprising ways. For one thing, a kind of bible-thumping religious maniac gets involved—he threatens Raff as a “liberal-minded atheist,” and he argues that the Bible supports the notion of development. This is too complicated an argument to get into here, but this fundamentalist threatens Raff and makes him think again about what he is trying to do.

The last section of the novel goes by a little too quickly—Raff makes friends and rises in the community, but it is hard for us to get a sense of that. But still the last section is compelling in its way, and it truly makes us realize how high the stakes are when an environmentalist confronts development and the hopes for the profits of lucrative real estate deals.

I enjoyed this novel, and I am happy to recommend it. I do so more for the ant colony than anything else, but Wilson tells a good story about the young environmentalist too.

E. O. Wilson

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