Andrew is brainier than most since he’s a cognitive scientist preoccupied with the biopsychological question of how brain becomes mind—and over the course of the novel, readers discover that the workings of his mind have become increasingly problematic.
Doctorow opens the story with a narrative cliché—a desperate parent and infant child showing up on a neighbor’s doorstep in frigid weather. In this case, the parent is Andrew and the infant, his daughter Willa. Andrew is distraught by the death of his beloved young wife, Briony, and in this distressed state, he goes to the home of his former wife, Martha, and her husband, an opera singer. One of the reasons for Andrew and Martha’s divorce turns out to have been the death of their young child, a tragedy Martha continues to hold Andrew responsible for. Martha takes Willa from Andrew’s hands, and by the end of the novel, we find out that 12 years have passed, and Willa has been raised by Martha and her husband. The form of the novel is largely a dialogue between Andrew and his psychiatrist, though the latter is a fairly subdued interlocutor, making the occasional comment and raising the occasional question. When Doctorow focuses his attention on Andrew, his philosophical preoccupations as a cognitive scientist, and his flashbacks to the development of his relationship with Briony, his former student, the chronicle is engaging, moving and humorous, but about two-thirds of the way through, the author loses his way. Andrew briefly becomes a high school science teacher and then (supposedly) a science adviser to the president, who had been Andrew’s roommate at Yale.
Brilliant in parts but unsatisfying as a whole.