A complex family drama arises following the death of its eldest son in this first novel from the author of two noteworthy short-story collections (Like Never Before, 1998, etc.).
When 1960s war protester Daniel Mirsky is discovered dead in San Francisco in 1994, his younger brother Nathan, a Boston medical resident, travels west to learn what happened, leaving behind his long-suffering and indignant girlfriend Janet. To Nathan’s surprise, his widowed father Sol(omon), a former factory owner and Holocaust survivor, decides to accompany him. As present action is interwoven with each character’s (often guilty) reminiscences, we learn that Nathan had both idealized and resented the charismatic, hectoring Daniel, and that Sol, still burdened by haunting images of his family’s wartime sufferings and losses, also grieves, silently and stubbornly, over his estrangement from his son’s accusatory political troublemaking. Havazelet widens the novel’s scope persuasively, narrating some of its content from various other viewpoints, notably those of Daniel’s former lover Abby, her 6-year-old biracial son Ben, even Sol’s long-dead wife Freda. The novel gains significant force from varying its concentration on Nathan, whose morose introverted self-hatred is more than a little wearying. Still, there are far too many borderline-lugubrious insights (e.g., “medicine, like the various lives he had contemplated for himself, … confirmed how little could be done in the face of history, fate, the odds”). Momentum and interest quicken whenever we follow Sol’s mental and physical peregrinations, especially as the climax draws near, and his determination to shake off restraints and reshape the life remaining to him is deftly paralleled with Ben’s attempt to “escape” from all that threatens to confine and limit him.
Overstuffed and intermittently awkwardly constructed. But it’s charged with the material of real life, and its characters demand, and earn, the reader’s empathy.