Every story we tell about ourselves can only be told in the past tense. It winds backward from where we now stand, no longer the actors in the story but its spectators who have chosen to speak. The trail behind us is sometimes marked by stones like the ones Hansel first left behind him. Other times the path is gone, because the birds flew down and ate up all the crumbs at sunrise.
Equal parts memoir, novel of ideas, and psychological thriller, the story opens in 1975 and spans 25 years of friendship between two artsy and academic Manhattan families.
The relationships commence when narrator and art historian, Leo, meets Bill, a painter whose work fascinates. The first third of the book involves much character exposition and ruminating about art and artists, some of which I briefly snoozed or skimmed through.
An unexpected death opens the next third and woke me right up.
The last third I could not put down, and I was occasionally so creeped out that I began questioning what I think I know about those I love most.
It’s not spoiling anything to say there’s a murder. Oddly on a night when I stayed up very late reading about it, my husband was dreaming about a serial killer working his way through our family. He, my husband, looked awful at breakfast, worn out. When I asked what was wrong he said, “I just had the worst dream I’ve ever had in my life.” The worst part being all the screaming of those he could hear dying but could not get to. And I said, "Who was the killer?” And he said, “Someone we knew.” And I said, “Who?” And he said, “I don't know, but I knew it was someone we knew, and I was going crazy trying to find out.”
The scenario being even more dreadful when, like Leo the narrator, you suspect that the killer is a family member. To avoid spoilers, I'll leave out the names.
I knew that by some definition both --- and --- were insane, examples of an indifference many regard as monstrous and unnatural; but in fact they weren’t unique and their actions were recognizably human. Equating horror with the inhuman has always struck me as convenient but fallacious, if only because I was born into a century that should have ended such talk for good. For me, the lamp became the sign not of the inhuman but of the all-too-human, the lapse or break that occurs in people when empathy is gone, when others aren’t a part of us anymore but are turned into things. There is genuine irony in the fact that my empathy for --- vanished at the moment when I understood that he had not a shred of that quality in himself.
This book is all about empathy -- its variations and qualities and how they make all the difference in all kinds of relationships. The more I read the more I appreciated and enjoyed Hustvedt’s talent for deftly navigating the complexities, from the routine to the catastrophic, with what proved to be an irresistible mix of nuance and drama. Yes, I briefly snoozed, but she more than made up for that by seducing and startling and occasionally moving me to tears, such that I'm granting 5 stars.
As soon as I opened the volume (of da Vinci drawings) the letters spilled out. I read and rested, read and rested, nearly panting from the strain but hungry for the next word . . . Do you remember when you told me I had beautiful knees? I never liked my knees. In fact, I thought they were ugly. But your eyes have rehabilitated them. Whether I see you again or not, I’m going to live out my life with these two beautiful knees. The letters were full of little thoughts like that one, but she also wrote: It’s important now to tell you that I love you. I held back because I was a coward. But I’m yelling it now. And even if I lose you, I’ll always say to myself – I had that. I had him, and it was delirious and sacred and sweet. And if you let me, I’ll always dote on your whole odd, savage, painting self.
Ultimately it is our salvation, that kind of finding and seeing and declaring and doting. By such gestures we redeem each other.
The letters are among the talismans, icons, incantations
that over time become Leo's shields of meaning
and muses of memory
without which, he intimately tells us, there’s no surviving when the game flirts with terror
and moves me so close to the edge that I have a sensation of falling . . . and in the speed of the fall lose myself in something formless but deafening . . . like entering a scream, being a scream.