A free-love opus set in a bygone era.
Ben Steinberg, a successful architect, hosts a collective of artists and free spirits in his Sag Harbor, N.Y., house in 1969. Among the damaged but earnest people that move through his home are Andre, a director; Robert, a Vietnam War veteran; Carolina, a spiritual youth endeavoring to live without restraint; and Maya, the apex of a romantic triangle that consumes her suitors. The plot follows a fairly straightforward design: As the year progresses, each character wrestles with their own particular demons. Robert’s disenchantment with the world is reified in his aversion to visiting his wealthy grandmother, the woman who raised him; for Carolina, it’s an evolving quest to live as freely as possible that, eventually, takes her away from Sag Harbor. But the plot, as it is, feels secondary here. The real tension comes from within. Working with a true ensemble cast, Stevenson explores the radical aspirations of each of his characters while balancing them against the dramatic irony of a world that didn’t turn out quite the way it was supposed to. Perhaps the best stand-in for the contemporary reader is Robert. He may have been disillusioned by his experience overseas (as readers may have been by the course of history), but he yearns for some kind of meaning in his life, something true to aspire toward. The same goes for everybody in the novel; amid pain and loneliness, they look for some kind of purpose in a world that doesn’t seem prepared to accept them. It’s a familiar enough theme for books set in the late 1960s, but Stevenson’s effortless prose brings a freshness to what could otherwise have easily been a trite tale of hippie naïveté. He laces the story with insightful mantras throughout: “It’s not like cooking—there’s no measuring cup. Freedom has to be unconditional or not at all.” The narrative movements here are subtle, often more interested in providing a full picture of the characters’ struggles than in building a propulsive plot. At times, the pace may feel sluggish for some, but readers willing to stick with it will be rewarded with a stunning resolution.
An atmospheric, evocative tale of youth endeavoring to live free.