A second’s inattention changes the shape of a woman’s life.
Claire Andrews is a well-respected van Gogh scholar and newly single university professor. Her life has a predictable pattern: teaching, researching, socializing with a few close friends. If she isn’t exactly going through the motions, she is at the very least treading a well-worn path, but after she strikes and kills a young boy with her car, the comfortable order of her world is permanently altered. Perhaps more disorienting than the accident itself are the responses it elicits. Claire’s university, anxious about bad publicity, wishes her to take a leave; her neighbors cannot meet her eye; and the boy’s family sues for wrongful death. In the midst of her trauma, Claire finds two bright spots: her estranged husband’s unexpectedly loyal response to her grief; and her own newfound curiosity about the last days of van Gogh’s life when he painted Crows Over the Wheatfield. Braver’s novel moves between Claire’s struggle to cope with the disintegration of her personal life in the wake of the accident, and a research trip to France during which she discovers new information about van Gogh. In both narratives, Claire is attuned to the significance of single moments in which the world and our perceptions of it can change in momentous and irreversible ways. Despite the care with which the author alternates between Claire’s scholarly and personal trials, a strategy echoed in the novel’s switching between passages about van Gogh’s trauma and Claire’s suffering, the juxtaposition can be both facile and jarring. The self-discoveries Claire makes in France have a formulaic, scripted quality that makes Claire unlikable and unbelievable. Prone to uttering sophomoric platitudes about art and life, Claire seems more concussed than introspective after her accident, a matter not helped by the stilted quality of the characters’ dialogue.
Braver (Divine Sarah, 2004) makes an ambitious attempt to examine how accidents harden into fate and tries to coordinate too many stories, yet he has no central character strong enough to synthesize them.