The death of their father sets a brother and sister on the path to discoveries about their loved ones and themselves.
Sifting through Lars Davidsen’s papers, son Erik and daughter Inga find an enigmatic note that suggests a dark secret in his past. It’s only one of the mysteries about this respected and respectable Minnesota college professor, who sometimes would vanish from his home and walk for hours in the night. Erik and Inga have their own problems. Her husband Max, a famous writer, died five years ago; their daughter Sonia is haunted by recollections of 9/11 (the towers collapsed just blocks from her high school). Erik, a psychiatrist, finds himself entangled in the personal difficulties of Miranda, the new tenant in his Brooklyn brownstone, whose former boyfriend Jeff is leaving on their doorstep invasive, vaguely menacing photos of Miranda and their daughter Eglantine—and of Erik, when Jeff senses his attraction to Miranda. Other elements in the busy plot include Max’s affair with an actress now threatening to make his love letters public and the various traumas of Erik’s patients. Passages of piercing beauty evoke Lars’s hardscrabble past on a Depression-era farm and as a soldier in World War II, as well as the complex bonds of love, guilt, regret and joy that bind families together. But the present-day story is marred by Erik’s pat psychiatric insights and improbable plot developments that reach their nadir when the buyer of Max’s letters turns out to be Erik’s medical school buddy Burton…in female drag. Hustvedt (A Pleas for Eros, 2005, etc.) writes spectacular sentences that embody the American experience in brilliantly specific physical imagery. She’s already written one great novel (What I Loved, 2003), and she’ll undoubtedly write more. Here, she stuffs too much material into a narrative that buckles under the weight of too many ideas insufficiently developed.
Ambitious, moving and sometimes maddening—but never, ever dull.