After a tragic accident—something that's alluded to early in the book but not explained until later—Jane Ashland's whole life begins to feel like it is spiraling out of control.
Jane's job as a professor of creative writing is no longer fulfilling, and she no longer has the patience to deal with academic wrangling, planning lectures, or grading papers. Similarly, despite having published several well-reviewed novels, she can no longer motivate herself to write. What’s the point? she wonders. The only thing that gives her even a modicum of pleasure is genealogy, and she has begun to compulsively research her family’s European ancestry. Over time, this passion builds to obsession, and Jane impulsively quits her job, sells her car, and moves out of her apartment. The plan, she tells her parents and colleagues, is to travel to Norway, meet a distant cousin she has never laid eyes on, and learn as much as she can about her family’s origins. But even before Jane arrives in Norway, things go awry. First, there’s her airline seat companion, Ulf, a zoologist who befriends her without knowing anything whatsoever about her circumstances. Later, when tensions with cousin Lars Christian’s family explode—she has told them nothing about the reason she gave up everything and landed on their doorstep, so they have no way to interpret her bizarre behavior—she tracks Ulf down and accompanies him to the mountains, where he is monitoring herds of musk ox. As the encounter unfolds, the reason Jane is so bereft is unveiled, and readers are made privy, in fits and starts, to her backstory. Told in a nonlinear fashion, the novel presents incidents in short spurts, with Jane's memories colliding in a jumble of recollections. The end result is gut-wrenching. And while the storyline and denouement are somewhat depressing, they can also be interpreted as an explication of deeply felt, raw emotion.
This resonant book is both provocative and gripping.