A glacially slow second novel from Zuravleff (The Frequency of Souls, 1996) concerns an embattled museum and its varied staff.
The Museum of Asian Art, with its fabulous location on the Mall in Washington, D.C., has a fateful day in 1999 when its banners promoting Asian cultures send the nation’s governors into a xenophobic tizzy that causes them to pressure the trustees into converting the museum into a food court. The museum’s director, beloved and energetic Joseph Lattimore, surprisingly caves (add unconvincing characterization to a dumb premise). He gives notice and leaves with wife Emmy for a dig in the Taklamakan, a Central Asian desert, where he will be taken hostage by Kashmiri terrorists, barely escaping with his life. Conflict in the desert substitutes for conflict in D.C., where the battle is never joined between trustees and museum staff. Acting director Promise Whittaker doesn’t learn of the trustees’ plans until the story’s halfway point, and doesn’t save the day by enlisting the Dalai Lama’s help until the end (something Joseph could have done at the beginning). Petite, goodhearted Promise is the actual protagonist. This 43-year-old Oklahoman, married with two kids to top Amnesty staffer Leo, finds she is pregnant again. Zuravleff, a former editor of books for the Smithsonian, eulogizes this working mom at length when she’s not imparting information on Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet who’s Promise’s specialty. As for the titular bowl, curator Arthur Franklin has acquired this fine Chinese porcelain for the museum but drops it at the donation ceremony, shattering it beyond repair. The broken bowl embodies a Buddhist lesson, but it’s also a victim of bedroom shenanigans, for Arthur’s triumphal lofting of the bowl had been suggested by fellow curator Talbot during some gay foreplay. Not to worry. Arthur gets off with probation, as does Min Chen, a curator who once embezzled museum funds to pay for fertility treatments.
Zuravleff’s love for ancient treasures and their sometimes fallible guardians is clear on every page. Unfortunately, that love alone isn’t sufficient foundation for a novel.