A long family history of incompatibility and enmity shatters several lives in this ambitious first novel, set in urban Massachusetts and on an island off the coast of Maine.
Initially, the narrator is Timmy Curtis, a 30-ish boy-man whose adulthood and marriage are shadowed by the figures of his late mother (killed when her car collided with a moving train) and distant “Dad” (a retired investment banker)—and, especially, by his free-floating younger brother Simon. The latter is a chronically under- or un-employed artist who subsists on “borrowed” money and maintains an angry nonrelationship with his dad, who wants Simon out of his life and refuses him living space in either of the family’s homes. When Simon secretly inhabits his old rooms, never noticed by his distracted father, things come to a head, even though the two never meet. Dad is found dead, and Simon is arrested and indicted for murder. The story then shifts among several viewpoints as well as past and present, juxtaposing the details of Simon’s ordeal (free on bail under surveillance, then house arrest) with numerous detailed flashbacks depicting the family’s retreats to its quiet haven on Burnt Island, and Simon’s increasingly conflicted standoffs with all the other Curtises except his impulsive “Mum” (whom Simon resembled as much as Timmy resembles buttoned-down Dad). The Blue Bowl (whose title denotes a missing object that suggests another theory of the murder) has a herky-jerky unevenness, marked by rambling sentences and muddy writing (the omnipresence of hippie jargon in Simon’s musings is particularly jarring) and sharp observations (“That’s horrible. She said it like a whore”) and images (“snow rested calmly over fields, loaved on cars”). And the predictable (though inconclusive) outcome of Simon’s trial is followed by an almost unbelievably lame last-minute surprise ending.
Minot works hard to pull it all together, but this is very uneven—and often very frustrating—work.