By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Ford is consistently funny and brilliant about later-in-life marriage, aging and real estate. The prose intermittently swells as if approaching a moment of insight or revelation, but the actual waves never quite crest, let alone crash. Will Frank’s wife come back? Will Frank tell his ex-wife he doesn’t want to get back with her? Will he talk with his daughter about her creepy boyfriend or interact with his estranged son? We read on to find out, but every revelation is sidestepped, each emotional exchange is avoided or muted. Instead, we meet and spend page after page with yet more of Frank’s ancillary acquaintances. Even when the runaway wife finallywrites, her letter is as muzzy and vague as he is. So despite the author’s humor and intelligence and the sheer beauty of Ford’s sentences, Frank Bascombe’s compulsive, unfocused musings cease accumulating narrative power midway through and the book sags under its own weight. I hung with The Lay of the Land through thick and thicker, and wound up as irritated as I was impressed.
Alice Munro’s latest, The View from Castle Rock, is a hybrid, a curiosity, a book made from the history of her own father’s family, the Laidlaws. Some of the stories are written as nonfiction memoir and some have inexorably metamorphosed into fiction, just as Munro has always fashioned fiction from what she knows and where she comes from. Here, her devoted readers will discover the factual kernels for stories published years ago. Her great uncle’s own written reminiscences were, we see, the basis for one masterpiece, “A Wilderness Station,” in Open Secrets. And Munro’s own brush with cancer seems completely familiar from such stories as “Oranges and Apples” in Friend of My Youth, or “Floating Bridge” in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.
The View from Castle Rock is not Munro’s very best book — the memoirs are a little dry, the book’s structure a little disjunctive. But the title story is as good as anything she’s written, and the mix of memoir and fiction provides a privileged glimpse into both her method and the prima materia of her fiction — it’s a scholar’s (and a fan’s) trove.
When in doubt, go with the Booker finalists. I’d been meaning to get around to Edward St. Aubyn for some time; by waiting, I was able to read his 1998 trilogy (published here in 2003 as Some Hope) and this year’s sequel, Mother’s Milk, back to back, thus subjecting myself to a gratifying immersion into the life of Patrick Melrose, a postaristocrat raised by impoverished upper-class monsters. Heathcliff is a kitten compared to Patrick’s own father, an abuser who congratulates himself for having the sport to rape his five-year-old son. Not surprisingly, Patrick becomes a prodigious addict in young adulthood — St. Aubyn writes in Some Hope of addiction’s complicated maneuverings with such convincing attention, it seems like the dreariest work; sobriety seems so much easier. Indeed, by the start of Mother’s Milk, Patrick has cleaned up enough to become a barrister, marry and have children. But then he’s stuck with the task of not inflicting on others any portion of the rage he carries with him — not easy when his wife has supplanted him in the marriage bed with their second son, and his own mother disinherits him. St. Aubyn gets the broken-down British class system like nobody else writing today; he is the heir to Evelyn Waugh, just as funny and dark, even more heartbreaking.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was a technically dazzling event two years ago; its different narratives spanned centuries and genres, yet all was accessible, beautifully structured, brilliantly written and great fun — even if, as we say in writing workshops, one didn’t really care about the characters. This year’s novel, Black Swan Green, proved that Mitchell also can be brilliant and completely sympathetic, in this case with a stuttering, poetry-writing 13-year-old Jason Tyler, who navigates the year he comes into his own while his parents’ marriage is falling apart. Mitchell mines the cusp where childhood starts shading into adulthood and nails the heady unsupervised ramblings of boyhood, the provisional friendships and encounters with strangers, the brutality of teenage bullies, the unexpected-to-miraculous interventions of kind adults, not to mention the glorious-but-terrifying inevitability of a first kiss.
THE ROAD | By CORMAC MCCARTHY | Knopf | 256 pages | $24
AFTER THIS | By ALICE MCDERMOTT | FSG | 288 pages | $24
THE LAY OF THE LAND | By RICHARD FORD | Knopf | 496 pages | $27
THE VIEW FROM CASTLE ROCK | By ALICE MUNRO | AA Knopf | 368 pages | $26
SOME HOPE | By EDWARD ST. AUBYN | Open City Books | 336 pages | $15
MOTHER’S MILK| By EDWARD ST. AUBYN | Grove Press | 240 pages | $23
BLACK SWAN GREEN | By DAVID MITCHELL | Random House | 304 pages | $24