Graver’s earnest third novel (after The Honey Thief, 1999, etc.) records the ordeals, and multiple “awakenings,” of a family tested by incurable childhood illness.
Narrator Anna Simon initially describes part of a summer she spends at upstate New York’s Camp Luna with her husband Ian Shea, adolescent son Adam, and nine-year-old Max, a sufferer from Xeroderma Pigmentosum (“Hypersensitivity to ultraviolet light”). The Camp, which serves similarly afflicted children and their families, is financed and run by Hal, an energetic widower to whom the overburdened and exhausted Anna (whose career as an artist has of necessity been put on hold) soon finds herself attracted. The plot is thus both predictable and minimal, moving toward its crisis when the Sheas return to Luna a year later and Anna succumbs to her infatuation. It’s expanded by numerous flashbacks to her childhood and later. But Graver’s heart doesn’t seem to be in them: many begin vividly, but quickly dissipate—a partial exception being the account (a foreshadowing, as it turns out) of her year teaching in France and acquiring a duplicitous lover. Anna’s “awakening” to passion with the equally undependable Hal stimulates Max’s grasp at the rudiments of an independent life—and a rift in her marriage that seems about to be repaired by the end. Awake is precisely and sensitively written, but we feel we know exactly where it’s headed almost from the opening pages. Max is a charming and potentially strong character, but Graver’s virtually exclusive focus on Anna’s emotions leaches the drama out of the story. Furthermore, any novel about adults dealing with gravely ill children risks comparison with Stanley Elkin’s black-comic masterpiece The Magic Kingdom, next to which Awake feels very much like unusually literate soap opera.
A misstep in a fine writer’s otherwise impressive career. Wait for Graver’s next one.