Tuesday, April 29, 2014

And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass

I swiftly tumbled into Julia Glass’s enticing portrait of Kit Noonan and his very domesticated life. Glass immediately captured me with Kit whose “only true occupation these days . . . is fatherhood; his only reason for getting up at this dismal hour is getting his children to school.” Kit, an unemployed art historian in his early forties, is a model father but at the same time he’s treading water in his marriage and his pursuit of employment. His wife wonders if his not knowing who his father is and his inability to challenge his mother to learn the man’s identity is causing his inertia. Unable to stand another moment of stasis she forces him to seek out his stepfather, Jasper, for possible clues.  Jasper is a typically nuanced Glass character, an aging ski bum running a resort, teaching kids to ski, and managing a dog sled team.  Kit arrives with an early blizzard that affords both men time to remember their joined past.  Jasper had promised Kit’s mother that he’d never give away her secret but instead he decides it’s time to connect Kit with Lucinda and Zeke Burns.

Lucinda Burns makes this novel sing.  Revered for her charity work helping young, single mothers and her support of her state senator husband, Lucinda is the grandmother we’d all love to have. Her husband’s recent stroke has her thinking more about her son, Malachy, a music critic who died of AIDS. Readers of Glass’s National Book Award winning novel, Three Junes, will recall Lucinda and Malachy as well as Fenno McLeod, Malachy’s long-time friend who also reappears in this novel. These characters lives soon intersect with Kit’s as he continues to learn about his father’s identity and his mother’s reasons for resisting his quest.

Soon Kit is united with his father’s family and I felt like I was with them in their awkward gathering with everyone jostling for position and searching for identity in a shifting world in a setting that hadn’t changed for generations.  I was deep in the rabbit hole which is why as a reader I was utterly devastated when Glass threw in a grenade of a plot device so abrupt and inconceivable that it made reading the last portion of the book almost impossible. But continue to read, I did and the reward was a sentimental, cloying ending that should have made me rejoice in what it means to be a father, to live in an imperfect family, and to forgive but instead left me yearning for the real Julia Glass to appear and call for a rewrite.

And the title, oh, the title is a clever homage to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” with “the bright blessed day and the dark sacred night.” During couple’s therapy Fenno McLeod and his partner Walter’s therapist brings up the song and Walter says, “Well, I am definitely the day, and boy is he ever the night.” The therapist then notes that he must mean “that your past is like the night: dark yet sacred.”  I think Glass intended for readers to see each character’s journey as a way of honoring the dark past and heading into the light of day but for this reader, it simply never happened.

Summing it Up: This novel is as uneven as a cobblestone street in an ancient Greek city. The beginning two-thirds are vintage Glass with detailed sketches of real people living life and trying to find answers to what it means to be a family but the last third is its antithesis with a disastrous twist and a much-too-tidy ending.

Rating: 3 stars (The first portion of the book is a 5 but the ending barely rises to a 2 thus I’ll call it a 3.)
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast
Publication date: April 1, 2014
What Others are Saying:

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Geometry of Love by Jessica Levine

Julia’s a poet but in the decade since she was a grad student at Yale she hasn’t written a single poem. She lives in Princeton with her long-time boyfriend Ben. She's a secretary in the math department and he’s teaching, writing, and conducting research in his frenzied quest for tenure. It’s 1987 and Julia visits Manhattan to see her parents and perhaps rent an apartment and take over her father’s accounting practice. While there she runs into Michael, Ben’s college roommate, and finds herself attracted to him both sexually and as a muse for her artistic passions. Michael asks Julia tough questions and makes her wonder whether she’s trying to force Ben into marriage.  She loves the security and comfortable sex life she has with Ben but seeing Michael makes her yearn for more. Michael asks her if she thinks people can choose to be happy and she answers,

“What is it we want, if not happiness?”
“More of what?” I asked.

Later Michael tells Julia that her relationship with Ben is like a Möbius strip – it would keep going infinitely. He tore a piece of paper out of a notebook, flipped one end of it, and created a model for her. 
“It’s a metaphor, don’t you see?” he said. . .
“Every time you feel you’ve gotten to the end of it – emotionally or sexually – you’re going to find yourself back at the beginning, with the feeling of things being new.”
I stared at the Möbius strip. 
“I hope you’re right,” I said.

Thus, Julia continues to repress the impulse to lean into Michael and change her future. But is that what she should do especially when she learns that Michael is composing again after a five-year hiatus and that she is his muse. Could he be her muse as well?

It’s readily apparent that author Jessica Levine is poet and a translator.  Her graceful phrasing and her attention to just the right word guide the reader into the novel’s deliberate pace. She writes erotic, yet still poetic, sex scenes that serve as an impetus and connection to the question Julia is constantly asking herself: Is this enough?

When Julia talks of love she compares it to animals who become imprinted and can no longer survive in the wild:
“We’re not so different in matters of the heart.  There are experiences of connection so deep they mark and change you forever. After excessive joy there’s the knowledge that everything to come can only be less than; that the happiness experienced is now gone forever, carried away by the torrential river of time, that the rest of life, as a result, can only disappoint. The bliss becomes a traumatic initiation into the ultimate insufficiency of life.  Whatever the future has to offer, one thing is clear: it won’t be enough.”

The Geometry of Love is divided into two parts with the second section taking place in 2004 when the reader can see where Julia’s choices have led her.   Readers then learn if her choices were enough or if she must begin again within the Möbius strip or step out into another mathematical dimension.

Julia’s not an easy character to like and readers will be cheering for her to stay with Ben, to run to Michael, or to find an entirely new life.  Occasionally this reader was torn between wanting her to be happy and wanting her to simply make up her mind.  Making readers sympathetic to conflicted characters who seem on the verge of bad choices isn’t easy. So when Levine implants us in Julia’s head, she gets extra points for “degree of difficulty.”  If this novel were a diving event, Levine’s writing would be a complicated reverse somersault with a twist.

Summing it Up: Dive into this complex Möbius strip of a novel to enter Julia’s mind as she contends with thoughts of creativity’s source, of the importance of erotic love, of family, and of the price of infidelity. Read this novel to see how the geometry of love with its triangles and linear equations can lead to one plus one becoming two or perhaps to much more.

Rating:  4 stars   
Category: Gourmet, Fiction, Book Club
Publication date: April 8, 2013
Reading Group Guide: http://www.jessicalevine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/The_Geometry_of_Love_Reading_Group_Guide.pdf
Jessica Levine will be glad to visit book clubs in person or schedule a conference by speakerphone or Skype when you're discussing the book. 
What Others are Saying:
"Jessica Levine knows relationships. In THE GEOMETRY OF LOVE, Levine artfully weaves the story of one woman's desire for passion, art and love and her conflicting needs of comfort, security and stability. A universal tale written by a compassionate writer whose gentle love of her characters shines throughout this book."--Ann Garvin, author of ON MAGGIE'S WATCH

"Unfulfilled love and attraction can resonate over decades, affecting our choices of who we love, what we create, and ultimately who we are. In his novel of relationships, Jessica Levine offers a strong heroine in Julia, a woman who wants to be honorable even as she wrestles with her wilder side and the undertow of longing. We root for her as she tries to do the right thing, which in the end is best chosen by the heart
…a fine literary debut that weaves psychological wisdom into an entertaining love story."--Virginia Pye, author of RIVER OF DUST

The Geometry of Love charts the love triangle between Julia, Ben, and Michael as all three search for the answers to life’s most heartfelt questions. Spanning 1987 to 2004the novel’s scope and sweeping character arcs will appeal to fans of Meg Wolitzer’s  The Interestings…. Julia’s emotions, insecurities, and pleasures are laid bare and recall Isadora Wing in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying….An outstanding first novel.”
Booklist, starred review 

The Geometry of Love will be one of five novels showcased in ForeWord Magazine's Debut Fiction ForeSight editorial article planned for their Summer Issue.