Engaging collection of literary and personal essays, most previously published, from novelist Hustvedt (What I Loved, 2003, etc.).
The author’s single most impressive skill, evident in all the best pieces here, is the way she uses autobiography to illuminate more general points. In “Yonder,” which opens the volume, Hustvedt illustrates the importance of place in our imaginative lives with examples from her experiences as a Midwestern girl who spent considerable time in Norway (her mother’s native country) and who has now lived in New York for 27 years. The tender, wickedly funny “Living with Strangers” and the moving “9/11, or One Year Later” pay tribute to her adopted home by recalling some of the personal encounters that have shaped her delight in “the city of immigrants, of pluralism, and of tolerance.” The latter essay will strike a particular chord with all New Yorkers, as it evokes the intimate nature of their confrontation with the World Trade Center tragedy: “For weeks afterward, the first question we asked friends and neighbors…was: ‘Is your family all right? Did you lose anybody?’ ” She also draws on her life to buttress her argument in “A Plea for Eros” that “to pretend that ambiguity doesn’t exist in sexual relations is just plain stupid.” Hustvedt’s use of autobiographical material is so delicate and judicious that it never seems self-aggrandizing; it works just as well in literary essays like “Gatsby’s Glasses” or “Charles Dickens and the Morbid Fragment” as in the more journalistic entries. Her prose is elegant yet down-to-earth, in keeping with the democratic sympathies and substantive intellectual interests she displays throughout. Though the collection spans a decade (1995–2005), it is unified by the author’s voice: so direct and appealing that many readers will hope to one day bump into Hustvedt on the sidewalks of the Brooklyn neighborhood she lovingly describes in several pieces.
As accomplished and intelligent as the author’s fiction—which is saying a lot.