"A novel too good to be ignored."– Kirkus Reviews
College friends come of age in the turbulent 1960s and ’70s when they confront their private demons in Sharp’s novel.
With her vibrant personality and strong will, Lucy Funaro (an uninhibited seductress) exemplifies the drive to succeed among the initially idealistic young adults of Sharp’s (The Duke Don’t Dance, 2012) latest. She headlines the cast in a kaleidoscopic review of 1960s politics, promiscuity, rampant drug activity and assassinations. Lucy and her constant companion, Camilla Benenati, both undergraduates, banter with grad students Shane and Connor Stephens and Connor’s roommate, Gil Gardner, at a sports bar in Princeton in the summer of 1963 and bond almost immediately, setting in motion enduring friendships. The group gradually expands to include Lucy’s older brother, Ira; Ira’s girlfriend, Ava (who marries and divorces Ira); Balinda, who marries Shane; and Sarah, married to Connor. The wide-ranging novel supports intelligent characters and a complex, lucid plot. The action continually shifts among the friends in American cities, Southeast Asia, Spain and South Africa. Ira hopes to build a career in Southeast Asia, and Shane accepts an assignment there in 1969 mainly to honor Connor, an Air Force officer whose plane crashed on a reconnaissance mission in 1967; what happened to Connor remains unknown until 1974, when a South Vietnamese acquaintance of Shane's locates what is left of the plane and its pilots. A brisk narrative pace holds the reader in thrall, most particularly in the several chapters that chronicle Lucy’s fate and the hopeless war in Vietnam. It’s clear that Sharp writes from personal knowledge of every locale, as well as of the war itself. In fact, the novel fascinates due to the writer’s skillful rendering of the era. The most intriguing device in Sharp’s prose is the one-line character sketch, an efficient, vivid use of language in a narrative otherwise so dense, it’s wise to take notes.
Animates the Vietnam era with sharply drawn characters and intricate storylines.
Sharp’s historical novel follows a 19th-century Missourian as he spends decades searching for the meaning of life, finding and losing love along the way.
Teenager William Ebhart yearns for action. Too young to take part in the Civil War, he watched it unfold from the sidelines; his father died fighting in the Confederate army. William, feeling shackled by his family’s tragedies, decides to leave home, and he falls in love with a gorgeous-but-jaded prostitute, joins a traveling medicine show, inadvertently helps a notorious group of outlaws rob a bank, loses the girl to a wealthier man, and returns home—all in the first 75 pages of Sharp’s (Jacob’s Cellar, 2012, etc.) epic novel. The rest of the book maintains the swift pace, as William goes on to marry a (seemingly) nice girl, become a father, and learn Shakespeare. After his wife abandons him, he masters a respectable trade as a lamplighter and reunites with the prostitute. Later, he takes back his wife and almost dies of yellow fever. The story is never dull, but readers may find that Sharp is too generous with plot teasers, revealing points that might have been more enjoyable if withheld. He provides plenty of forthright details about each character’s inner workings, and as William grapples with his past and toys with his future, he analyzes the meanings of faith, truth and morality. Such philosophical meanderings, along with references to Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale, elevate this story, although the frequent typos detract. Sharp also sprinkles in real-life characters and events without it ever seeming contrived; for example, famous outlaws Jesse and Frank James pop in and out of the narrative, and William spends the latter part of the book working in Panama during France’s ill-fated canal construction in the 1880s.
An engaging and atypical Reconstruction-era saga.
In this historical novel, Sharp (The Duke Don’t Dance, 2012) presents a frontier family as it recounts its history to one another on the eve of the Civil War.
Set mostly in the cellar of a homesteading house in the Platte Purchase in Missouri, the novel uses adolescent William Ebhart as a focal point for both sides of his family — the Ebharts and the Fentresses — to describe their intertwining history as they’ve moved westward after immigrating. The novel touches on land disputes, the Mexican-American War and other patches of American history. The cellar, built by William’s grandfather, Jacob, has become a place of congregation and mystery where the family swaps stories and legends, including tales of bodies buried behind its walls. Many of the novel’s main events are told in summary, typically in a monologue by one of its many characters, or later, in an epistolary format. This not only robs the scenes of urgency, it strains credulity when characters deliver lengthy, unconvincing speeches filled with historical details. For example, Frank, a war buddy of William’s father, relays a story of the Mexican-American War: “Well, in May of ’46, word reached Leavenworth that Polk finally got the Congress to declare war….Col. Doniphan was organizing a unit of Missouri volunteers that we called the First Missouri Mounted Volunteers. Sterling Price left Congress, had himself made a colonel, and began to organize another unit, the Second Missouri.” Such superfluity typifies Sharp’s eagerness to insert historical detail into the narrative with little dramatic justification. It’s unfortunate, too, because on the rare occasions when Sharp writes in fully developed scenes, the writing shines. For instance, William finds himself unintentionally hidden while his father engages in a private conversation about a past love; it’s a tense moment that underscores the need for such drama in other chapters. Sharp’s decision to make this a multigenerational story worsens its problems; William isn’t so much a protagonist as he is a receptor of information, and without a clear narrative focus, the reader is left digesting a lot of information with little emotional involvement with the characters.
An interesting story of immigrant struggle handicapped by excessive summary.
In this novel, a group of friends gathers to pay respect to a retired Air Force major following his untimely death in an auto accident.
Sharp’s debut is a frame narrative of impressive scope and quality. Between the visitation and interment of Frank Miller, an omniscient narrator defines the role of seven individuals in Frank’s life. In 22 well-paced, retrospective chapters—beginning in 1960 and continuing at intervals to 2010—readers will come to know and relate to these characters. (The script for The Big Chill is strikingly similar, if not as thematically rich.) Stylistically, the novel unfolds by means of colorful dialogue and pungent observations typical of Henry James. Sharp’s astute commentary guides the reader through motivations not otherwise apparent. Many chapters involve Frank’s second wife, Lillian, and his oldest friend, Sam, who brought the two together. Sam, however, keeps from him the high school intimacy he shared with Lillian. Defiantly promiscuous and rebellious as a teenager, Lillian remains a seductress and risk-taker in adulthood. This includes a liaison with Ted, another of Frank’s longtime friends, before she marries Frank when they are both firmly rooted in middle age. Business colleagues Ben and Rafi appear at a memorable business lunch in 1980 that provides the title of the novel. As the colleagues argue about the message scrawled above the urinals in the restaurant’s restroom, some readers may find the novel’s irreverence on par with Joseph Heller’s. Beth—one of Frank’s business colleagues—and Sam’s wife, Fran, are also major players, but other spouses, ex-wives, adult children and lovers take on secondary yet intriguing roles. Each of the major characters has something to hide from Frank, primarily of a sexual nature. But Frank has something he hides from them, too, in this sassy and bold look at life well-lived.
A novel too good to be ignored.