The pressures of the examined life reshape priorities and relationships among an expanding and contracting extended family of urban intellectuals.
Morton’s fourth novel (A Window Across the River, 2003, etc.) moves with brisk efficiency among linked subplots concerning respected literary novelist Adam Weller (63, and involved with a much younger woman), his resentful ex Eleanor (a psychologist) and their youngest child, Maud, a lecturer and Ph.D. candidate in philosophy with a history of inchoate commitments and nervous breakdowns. Maud seems to be emerging from her lifelong fragility when she falls for Samir, an Arab-American carpenter whose continuing sorrow over the death of his three-year-old daughter will be gradually assuaged after Maud informs him she’s pregnant. Eleanor, obese and depressed, stubbornly resists the chance for happiness offered by Patrick, who has spent his life as a labor activist, but reserved the energy to pursue her again, even after 40 years. Meanwhile, the wily Adam (a self-justifying careerist whose expressive egotism is reminiscent of more than one Saul Bellow character) sees an opportunity to embellish his reputation when Ruth, widow of eminent novelist (and Adam’s mentor) Isidore Cantor, produces the completed manuscript of her husband’s “unknown” novel, then dies—before anyone but Adam knows of the book’s existence. Abetted by his brazen mistress Thea (employed as an assistant to TV interviewer Charlie Rose), Adam—as usual—thrives. Others around him are less fortunate. Eleanor settles for sublimating her happiness in tending others’ needs. Maud loses one great love, gains another and—paradoxically—acquires a wisdom beyond her elders’ grasp. A philosopher to the core, she assures another afflicted soul (her wheelchair-bound confidant Ralph) that “We must imagine Sisyphus happy”; and, drawing the inevitable conclusion, accepts that “The law of life . . . is striving.”
Precisely observed characters, keen prose and a sure sense of how we simultaneously complicate and survive our lives make this one something special.