A haunting, exquisite novel about the nature of loss, grief and the illusion of intimacy.
The unnamed protagonist, having taken care of his failing mother for some 12 years, is devastated by her death. When a friend offers a one-semester teaching gig in Washington, D.C., and a lead on a room rental, the professor jumps at the deal. So begins Holleran’s spare story: “The house that I lived in that winter in Washington had been a rooming house with fourteen rooms, rented out mostly to addicts, when my landlord bought it in 1974.” On the nightstand is a collection of Mary Todd Lincoln’s letters; the widow’s words become a reference for everything the professor notices as he wanders the nation’s capital. Here is her dress in the Smithsonian Institution; here is where her husband was assassinated; here the atmosphere is similar to one of the First Lady’s soirees. The author slowly discloses his characters’ makeup: The professor holds on to his anguish as a form of tribute (“Grief is what you have after someone you love dies. It’s the only thing left of that person”). His landlord—reserved, formal and middle-aged—has seen hundreds of his friends die in the AIDS epidemic; in the face of such sorrow the landlord simply retreats. (“My landlord was, so far as I could tell, like many gay men of a certain age, celibate—because of AIDS, or an inability to attract the partners they wanted, or simply diminishing interest.”) Even Biscuit, the landlord’s dog, plays a subtle role in Holleran’s narrative: The professor is relieved to be able to feel sorry for something worse off than himself. Holleran’s slender novel is a work of art defying easy synopsis; the author’s skill resides—as does much of the plot—in the small details.
A quiet story well told.