THE FALL OF A SPARROW by Robert Hellenga


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A thoroughly absorbing and deeply moving consideration of “the strength of love” matched against “the strength of death” dominates this wonderful second novel by the author of the widely acclaimed The Sixteen Pleasures (1994). Center stage is Alan “Woody” Woodhull, a middle-aged professor of classics at a small Illinois college, whose oldest daughter “Cookie,” during a terrorist bombing of an Italian train station, is killed in 1980—a senseless loss that pulls the Woodhull family apart. Cookie’s mother Hannah leaves her husband and enters a convent. Younger siblings Sara (who narrates part of the story) and Ludi go their separate ways. And Woody, an impressively well-rounded and endearingly decent human being, seeks consolation in the ancient writers he adores, in a passionate avocation as blues guitarist and singer, and in an ill-judged tryst with a beautiful Iranian student (whose mother had formerly been his mistress). Disgraced and suspended from teaching, Woody travels in 1987 to Bologna when the terrorists responsible for Cookie’s death (as well as others—) are brought to trial, and there he achieves both a vita nuova and a greater understanding of the forces that impel some people to become cold- hearted killers, others only well-meaning adulterers. In this amazingly rich story, Woody Woodhull is shown in the context of his many “loves,” is celebrated in generously developed scenes (many during holidays: ceremonies intended to bind people together), and is examined in superb extended conversations: Woody’s Christmas visit from Hannah; a classroom discussion that makes you want to curl right up with The Odyssey; and, climactically, Woody’s meetings with the agonized father of convicted terrorist Angela Strappafelci; and then--the book’s most risky and powerful scene—with the unregenerate Angela herself in her jail cell. The primal power of family, and the limitations and blessings of the intellectual life, are unforgettably explored in a wrenching story that demonstrates precisely how “It’s not the great stories that give meaning to the little ones; it’s the other way around.— (Author tour)

Pub Date: July 21st, 1998
ISBN: 0-684-85026-5
Page count: 464pp
Publisher: Scribner
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1998


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