Memories—elusive, shattered, or tormenting—are central to a tender story of unlikely love.
In his 15th novel, the prolific Jacobson (Pussy, 2017, etc.) considers the debilities of very old age in a shrewd, surprising tale centered on a feisty nonagenarian who wraps herself in boas and baubles and a reticent bachelor. “Memory is a sadist,” observes Mrs. Beryl Dusinbery, who styles herself the Princess, after Scheherazade, seductive teller of tales. But Beryl’s tales are fragmentary and vexing: Troubling memories rise unbidden while the pleasures of her erotic past swirl mistily. “In her heyday,” Jacobson’s wry narrator reports, “Beryl Dusinbery had been able to drive the thought of any other woman out of a man’s mind. It wasn’t infidelity she conjured, it was oblivion.” Now, though, oblivion threatens her, as she struggles to remember the details of her many lovers; mixes up the identities of her two grown sons and their offspring, none of whom interest her; and frustrates her two caregivers with capricious demands. At the age of 91, Shimi Carmelli, like the Princess, exudes old-world sophistication with his “air of elegant, international desolation” and refined wardrobe. Other than in his appearance, though, Carmelli stands in sharp contrast to the Princess: Formerly a seller of phrenology busts, he tells fortunes, reading cards at a local Chinese restaurant and at charity events attended by widows eager for new love. He has lived a circumscribed, solitary life, striving in every way “to remove the stain of common humanity from his person.” Unlike the Princess, Carmelli is beset by remembering. “I have selective morbid hyperthymesia,” he confesses, unable to forget anything, most notably a childhood transgression that has haunted his entire life. Jacobson treats with compassion the dilemma of old age, when the future seems to hold nothing more than “the same, unvarying story” and an inevitable diminishment; instead, he offers his brittle Princess and self-effacing fortuneteller a chance to discover deeply hidden capacities for kindness and caring and the inspiration, as the Princess puts it, to “risk another end.”
Wise, witty, and deftly crafted.