American and Finnish families struggle with technology, immigration, and the unintended consequences of their own actions.
Renowned neurologist Joe Chayefski is a man with many problems, some familiar and some more exotic. His wife is buried in her work, his daughters hide in their rooms or behind their electronic devices, and mysterious figures have started to harass him and his family, protesting against his ethically dubious experiments on animals. The last problem seems connected, somehow, to his ex-wife in Finland and their child, whom Joe effectively abandoned years ago. For his first book translated into English, the Finnish novelist Valtonen has written a big social novel about upper-middle-class life today. Its villains are the standard baddies of the genre: unscrupulous tech companies, media monopolies, pharmaceutical firms, and terrorists. Its protagonists suffer from malaise, alienation, cultural misunderstandings, and the unintended consequences of their actions in a world too big and complicated to control. Although the social problems in Valtonen’s novel are old news (gadgets meant to bring us together really push us apart!), novels like his stand or fall, ultimately, on their characters. Do they reward attention over hundreds and hundreds of pages? In this case, yes. Some of Valtonen’s characters—namely Joe, his ex-wife, Alina, and their son, Samuel—are complex yet coherent, self-reflective and self-deceived in equal measure. They remain mysteries to each other and to themselves. These are problems older than digital technology. And for novelists, they are far deeper and more fruitful.
A contemporary novel that doesn’t lose sight of perennial dilemmas.