Merlis’ new novel deals with the tenacity of the past and one woman’s struggle to reconcile her dead husband’s account of their life, their marriage and the death of their son with her own memories.
Living alone in New York in 2003, Martha Ascher is the last of her family. Her husband, renowned author Jonathan Ascher, has been dead for 30 years, and their son, Mickey, died overseas during the Vietnam War. When a hopeful intellectual asks for access to Jonathan’s writings for a biography, Martha finally reads the journals her husband left behind. Much of the novel is taken up by Jonathan’s chronicle of his life from 1964 to ’73, centering on his struggle with his sexuality and encounters with men, as well as an increasingly complicated relationship with Mickey. Through Jonathan, the novel also examines—with varying degrees of success—what it was to be gay during a time of social upheaval. This examination, however, falls into a tedium that extends throughout Jonathan’s journal entries. He's not especially likable, and his shortcomings and personality flaws tend to repel the reader in all-too-familiar ways. Often, the characters are too forthcoming with one another and seem remarkably articulate when it comes to expressing complicated emotions. Even Martha’s narration tends to state emotional facts so bluntly that it eliminates room for complexity. One aspect of the novel that overcomes any shortcomings, however, is its depiction of Mickey. Jonathan and Martha don't know quite how to treat their son—they describe him as “blank” and “inscrutable”—and their fumbling attempts to connect with him are heartbreakingly genuine.
While the novel should be applauded for its ambitious goals, it falls short of actually achieving most of them.