A Book Review
Genre: Literary fiction; National Book Award winner 2002; family relationships; friendship; loss of loved ones
Winner of the National Book Award 2002
This novel is a compilation of three novellas--one long one sandwiched between two short ones. Each novella is set in the month of June several years apart.
Collies, set in June 1989, is the story of Paul MacLeod, owner of a newspaper in Scotland, on tour with a group in Greece as he comes to terms with the recent loss of his wife, Maureen, who had raised show collies with the same no-nonsense affection and pride she raised their three sons--Fenno, the eldest who had eschewed his legacy and now co-owns a bookstore in N.Y. city, and the twins David, a veterinary surgeon in the town he grew up in, and Dennis, studying in Paris to be a chef. The story see-saws between the banter and bon homie among the tour group as they move through their nearly choreographed adventure and Paul’s sometimes agitated reminisces of the years of his marriage as he fumbles and feels his way toward a vision of a future without her. Meanwhile he develops a serious infatuation with another member of the group. Fern, a young American artist studying and living in Paris. She seemed to return his regard but he soon realized he had mistaken her kindness as more than it was when he spies her in the embrace of their tour guide.
Upright, set in June 1995, is Fenno’s story. It centers on the month he returns to Scotland for his father’s funeral but ranges over the years of his childhood, his coming of age as a young gay man and the impact of the losses to AIDS of many of his friends and acquaintances among the gay men’s culture in N.Y. City. It centers also on the significant relationships in his life--his parents, his brothers, their wives and children, his friend and mentor who is also co-owner with him of a bookstore, his pet collie who is the last of his mother’s litters, his adopted exotic parrot; and Malachy, a music critic dying of AIDS with whom he has an intense though platonic friendship and who had caused great consternation among the family when he accompanied Fenno to his mother’s funeral in 1989. It is the story of his attempt to stay upright or celibate as a defense against AIDS which succumbed to a passionate and tumultuous affair with Tony, an avant garde photographer who makes his living as a house sitter all over the globe for the globe-trotter set and who was careless with Fenno’s heart.
The family dynamics are nearly chaotic during his visit. His relationship with David is strained as he thinks of him as “…workaday in his sensibilities and strikingly devoid of wit.“ And thinks him undeserving of the good-hearted and generous Lil, whom Fenno had known and been fond of when she was studying dance in N.Y. before she ever met David. It is just the other way around with Dennis and his wife Veronique. Fenno and Dennis share complete acceptance and affection and he sees in Dennis a sweet innocence so lacking in artifice Fenno is sure Dennis would not recognize it “…if it were a cricket bat smashing his jaw.“ But Veronique he sees as a snob and an imperious tyrant in the way she runs her family--Dennis and their three daughters ages six, four and three. Dennis had met her while studying in Paris and they now own and run a restaurant there.
The tensions among the siblings and their spouses and the children play out in minor and major dramas over the course of the planning for and the execution of the various rituals accompanying a death in the family. When a startling request of immense implications is made of him by one member of the family he is forced to re-evaluate his sense of who these people are, who he is and how they fit together.
Boys takes us to 1999 and its protagonist is the same Fern who was Paul’s brief love interest in 1989. She has since been briefly married and then widowed in a bizarre accident. Now, two years after the tragedy, she is pregnant by her current lover, Stavros, the Greek-American owner of the building she lives in. He had escorted the police to her door the night of her husbands death. His kindness that night and in the months following had been a comfort and over time their relationship evolved. But she is unsure if it is love. About the time she discovered she was pregnant, Stavros left for Greece with his mother and remained there with her as she nursed her own dying mother. Being unsure, she has not told Stavros of his coming son. Now she has learned his return is imminent and she is unable to envision their reunion with her visible pregnancy serving as the announcement. Panicking, she flees the city and becomes the pampered houseguest of Tony, the photographer, who was house-sitting for a bookstore owner (Fenno’s business partner. And yes, it is the same Tony who was once Fenno’s amore).
She and Tony had had a brief affair while she was studying in Paris, which she had ended abruptly when she discovered his penchant for young men. Over the years their relationship had evolved into a fond friendship. While she was staying with Tony, Fenno arrives with his brother Dennis to bury his beloved collie, the last from his mother’s litters. After a wee-hour’s heart to heart with Fenno about family, parenthood and love, in which he convinces her to “…never talk yourself out of knowing you are in love…or into thinking you are”, she garners her courage and the next morning hitches a ride back into the city with Fenno. Stavros’ ultimate reaction is implied in his frantic messages on her answering machine which she retrieves with Fenno’s cell phone as they are stuck in a traffic jam on the outskirts of New York City.
The true sense of this story cannot be imparted in this bare-bones rendition of its intricately woven plot. And it must be read slowly to savor the delicate preciseness of the language which renders visible the scenes in New York, Greece, Paris and Amagansett, Scotland and palpable the lives of these people whose paths criss-cross across time and space, influencing in subtle and profound ways the ultimate destiny of each. All of this imparted via the nodal points of three separate and distinctive consciousnesses each engaged in a crisis of spirit in the month of June. A month that is emblematic of new beginnings, of flowering, new growth and the first fruits of a new season.
© 2004 by Joy Renee Davis