Brooding and elegiac account of an Austrian refugee who begins a new life in America but can’t get free of either his troubled memories or his bad luck.
A Jewish tailor born and raised in Vienna, Arthur Henning escaped the Nazis and made it to London in 1939—only to have his wife and baby daughter killed there during the bombardments a year later. After the war, Arthur and his surviving son Toby emigrate to America, where Arthur finds work as chauffeur to a wealthy businessman named Duvall, who keeps a large country estate outside New York. It’s a quiet life very much to Arthur’s liking, especially after the turmoil of the war years, but the clouds soon gather. Duvall’s daughter Aggie becomes pregnant by Toby, is sent to a home for unwed mothers, and then forced to put her child up for adoption. Brown (The Hatbox Baby, 2000; stories: The House on Belle Isle, 2002, etc.) tells her story in an elliptical series of flashbacks, so these bare facts are given at the start. But as we move back and forth across the years with Arthur (who knows—but doesn’t reveal—where his grandson now lives), we come bit by bit to understand the real depth of pain suffered by all the parties in this affair. For Duvall (whose daughter refuses to reveal the identity of the father), it is a slap in the face; for Aggie (who grew up with Toby and loved Arthur more than her own father), it is a knife in the heart; and for Toby (who was never even told that Aggie was pregnant), it is a bald betrayal. For Arthur, however, it seems to be the culmination of a life of misery and failure, the high point of a grief that has never let up since Kristallnacht.
Much too much: an elegant and intensely moving story gets bogged down in its own ruminations.