Familiar Irving themes and autobiographical points mark this sprawling family tale.
Narrator Adam Brewster is a lucky bastard. His short and unwed mother, Ray, is gay but marries even shorter Elliot, an English teacher and wrestler at Adam’s New Hampshire school, who's fine with Ray living part of the year elsewhere with her female partner, Molly, and will eventually transition genders. At the wedding, Adam hears the epic orgasms experienced by Em, the partner of his cousin Nora. They perform, in some of the novel’s best moments, at a comedy club as Two Dykes, One Who Talks, with Nora interpreting Em’s pantomime. Adam, seen from childhood to old age, is lucky to be raised and surrounded by women who are smart, loving, and supportive. Still, he spends most of the book trying to find out more about his father, someone Ray met in 1941 when she was a teenager at a hotel in Aspen, Colorado. The likely candidate is an actor whose noir films and off-screen life become a major sidebar. The lost paternity that haunts Adam is reflected in actual ghosts that appear haphazardly throughout the novel, sparking a few comic moments but mainly serving to personify his preoccupation with family history. Like Irving, Adam writes three novels before gaining broad fame with his fourth. Also like Irving, he writes for the movies, and twice the narrative switches to lengthy stretches of screenplay format, bringing a welcome briskness to the generally slow pace. Irving’s writing can be painfully plain, short on imagery or elegance and long, oh so long, on repetition. But his imagination and empathy often work to charm a reader when the prose falls short. Here the consistent pleasure is an extended family whose distinctive voices deliver thoughtful messages of tolerance, understanding, and affection for those who are different.
A book that will try a reader’s patience but may also reward it.