HERBERT ROWBARGE by Natalie Babbitt


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Why is successful Herbert Rowbarge so cold of heart, so lacking in the delight or merriment one would expect of someone so devoted to his popular amusement park and its old-fashioned merry-go-round? The answer, readers are aware throughout, is that "a vital piece of him was wrenched away in his third month of life"--a twin brother adopted from the Home to which both abandoned infants were confined when a day old. After that Herbert's first pleasure in life is a second-hand Noah's Ark, with the animals all in pairs except for "one lonely lion that had lost his twin forever." (It is to the pair of lions on his merry-go-round that the grown-up Herbert goes for comfort.) At three, he finds joy in an entrance-hall mirror, but his tantrums on being carried away result in his being exiled from the hall. Through life, he experiences a pleasurable but terrible "twinkling down the spine" when he catches himself in a mirror. Herbert never returns the affection of his "older brother" from the Home, though the two are business partners through life. He marries for money, is repelled by his wife, and resents through life the twin daughters she bears five years before her death. When they are 40, he arranges for one of the twins to live with and care for a newly widowed aunt; as it doesn't matter which one goes--he can't tell them apart anyway--the two switch off by the month between their aunt's house and their father's. In his later years Herbert has a few near-brushes with his twin, but is never aware of the other man's existence--not even when he kills him in a car accident on the day of his own death at 72. Babbitt alternates chapters in Herbert's life, from birth to death, with dry observations of his devoted 45-year-old daughters Babe and Louisa on those last days before his death liberates them to live together in drab contentment. It's an expertly turned artifact of a story, which is not to deny its human sympathy and penetrating edge.
Pub Date: Nov. 15th, 1982
ISBN: 046004642X
Page count: 216pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1982


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