The war in Iraq tears an American family apart, in a novel that suffers from cultural stereotypes, political polemics and a strange depiction of the afterlife.
Todd Ogden is a painter of some repute and insufferable self-absorption. He came of age during the free-loving ’60s and seduced his wife, Sarah, on their first meeting. She is a member of an established, wealthy New England family, the kind that donates heavily to private schools and has buildings named after them, and her marriage to Todd was seen as a sign of radical rebellion. Sarah and Todd have encouraged their two offspring, Amanda and Jack, to be equally free-spirited, but Jack attempts to exercise his independence by enlisting in the Marines instead of accepting early admission to Harvard. Todd responds in a manner that is exaggeratedly boorish, all but disowning his son, while displaying a class-conscious snobbishness that extends to Jack’s new girlfriend. Jessica’s innate goodness matches her beauty, but she hasn’t lived the life of privilege that Jack now appears willing to throw away. As shuffled by Schaeffer (Zermatt, 2003, etc.), the voices of these five principal characters alternate in narrating chapters, with Jack proceeding through every boot-camp cliché without ever discovering much beyond affirmation for the selfless saintliness of his decision. Tragedy ensues, as do complications, leaving all of the survivors to come to terms with the unfathomable as best they can. Conveniently, Amanda works as an assistant on the letters-to-the-editor page of the New York Times, where most of her coworkers feel as little regard for the Marines as her father does. While bullheaded Todd belatedly tries to make amends and save his floundering marriage, Schaeffer injects the voice of a wisecracking God into the narrative, in a manner that religious liberals and conservatives might find equally offensive.
Any war deserves a better novel than this one.