THE POTATO BARON by John Thorndike


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Thorndike (Anna Delaney's Child, 1986) builds his smoothly constructed second novel around an 80's dilemma: in order to keep a marriage together, just how much does a man have to sacrifice for the sake of his wife's independence? Austin Pooler has been married for 20 years when his wife, Fay, leaves home, telling him she cannot go on living on a potato farm in Aroostock County, Maine. She wants to stay married, but Austin will now have to live wherever she chooses. The Poolers have farmed their land for generations, and Austin is genuinely devoted to his product. At summertime cocktail parties on Nantucket, he is apt to start espousing the virtues of potatoes. He recommends eating them every day. Nevertheless, he leaves his farm during growing season to track down his wife, who has taken their eight-year-old son with her. His efforts to win her back involve a trip to Mexico and, later, a Winnebago ride through the American Southwest, where the desert is as alien as the moon to a potato farmer from Maine. Fay remains adamant: she wants to live in Tucson. And, ultimately, after harvesting his crop and leading other county farmers in a demonstration against imported Canadian potatoes, Austin must make his choice--Fay or the farm. Thorndike's writing is moving and evocative, especially in the details of the landscapes, both in Aroostock County and Arizona. He also makes Austin Pooler a believable and sympathetic character, and he's scrupulously fair about presenting opposing viewpoints--Fay is never made the villain for wanting her freedom. But there is something homogenized about all the balance here. Even the sex scenes seem charted and predictable after a while--his turn to do this, her turn to do that. It's clear that the author has all the right ingredients. He just needs to fry them up a little more--hash browns, please, instead of mashed.

Pub Date: May 30th, 1989
ISBN: 394-57712-4
Publisher: Villard
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