An ambitious social novel informed by an extended perspective on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, from the early 1980s to the near future.
Murphy, an experienced reporter on the disease, is plainly inspired by Larry Kramer, whose journalism thundered against anti-gay power structures and whose plays like The Normal Heart dramatized AIDS victims. In his novel, Murphy wants to bring Kramer’s vision into the 21st century, though he goes about it with more artistry and less polemic. At the novel’s center is Mateo, the adopted son of Milly and Jared, two affluent East Village artists (the title refers to the stately apartment building where they live). In 2009, just as Mateo is leaving high school, he begins a slow slide into heroin addiction, enabled by Hector, a former Christodora resident with a meth habit. Hector was formerly an activist focused on access to AIDS medications, Milly’s mother worked for New York’s health department when AIDS exploded, and that’s just where the convenient coincidences begin. But if Murphy’s characters can feel all too neatly arranged amid the plot, fracturing the novel’s timeline—leaping from 2001 to 1995 to 1989 to 2021, etc.—helps make these connections more organic and unforced. And the author is expert at inhabiting a variety of mindsets, from Milly’s bourgeois anxieties to Mateo’s mother’s despair as an HIV-positive Latina to Mateo’s own capacity to manipulate people to feed his habit. Murphy’s big theme is that drugs are a persistent and radically reshaping force, whether it’s antiretrovirals, antidepressants, or crystal meth—and are chased after in almost equal measure in a search for a feeling of home. Murphy can’t manage every plot thread with equal depth—Mateo’s parents are comparatively wan figures. But when Mateo’s at the center, as he often is, Murphy has a potent symbol of loss and redemption.
A poignant, if carefully manicured, exploration of a health crisis that hasn’t yet ended.