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by Benedict Wells ; translated by Charlotte Collins

Pub Date: Jan. 29th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-14-313400-8
Publisher: Penguin

German-Swiss novelist Wells' fourth book—his first to be translated into English—is a bittersweet, intricately plotted family saga that centers on Jules Moreau and his elder siblings.

After their parents die in an accident when Jules is 10, he, his sister, Liz, and his brother, Marty, are sent to a boarding school, and gradually they recede from each other, drift away from the (now haunted) intimacy they shared before. Liz becomes a beautiful, enigmatic butterfly, ever elusive; the driven Marty hurls himself into his studies, seizes on a new big idea, and becomes an early internet entrepreneur. Meanwhile, the awkward, dreamy Jules wants to become a photographer (his father's thwarted passion) or a writer. Fifteen years or so later, he reconnects with his friend and chief solace from those lonely schooldays, Alva, for whom he nursed a love that wasn't so much unrequited as tantalizingly out-of-phase. She's married now, it turns out, to a much older Russian-born writer who was one of their adolescent literary idols, and Jules leaves his job as a record-company executive to live with them in a remote chalet. He and Alva resume their old chaste companionship, and her husband, whose memory has begun to fail in ways at first scarcely visible but ever more conspicuous, encourages Jules to rededicate himself to his old ambition of writing fiction. What emerges from his stay in Switzerland is a dense network of connections and collaborations, not only with Alva and her husband, but also with Liz and Marty. Some of these links are wished for, some half-accidental, some ardently chased after, some resisted or delayed or lamented or clear only after years of being obscured, but all of them are inescapable—which turns out to be a pretty fair definition of family. Wells' style is less antic than that of his admired elder John Irving, but in setting, tone, density of plot, and a streak of (occasionally heavy-handed) didacticism, the resemblances are strong.

The book's earnestness weighs it down from time to time, but overall Wells has written a tender, affecting novel, one that packs a lot into a slender frame.