Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Staff Pick - The Astral by Kate Christensen

Harry Quirk in Kate Christensen's The Astral (M) finds himself stripped of everything at age 57 and forced into the position to either reclaim or to rebuild his life. Thirty years of marriage to Luz ends with her unfounded suspicion that Harry is having an affair with his long-time friend Marion. Luz reaches this conclusion based on a book of Harry's poetry which, on the surface, appear to be lovingly about another woman. She destroys his manuscript and Harry is homeless, unemployed and bewildered. Harry and Luz's life has been contained within a neighbourhood of Brooklyn for thirty years. There they raised their two children in The Astral, a rose-coloured apartment building which has lost some of its former glory. The Quirks were self-contained within this neighbourhood - work, home, and friends were all at their fingertips. Harry, the dreamy poet, was accustomed to Luz, the practical nurse, taking charge of him and their family. For the first time he is on his own and is making a poor job of housing and feeding himself. He also finds himself, for the first time, coming to his children's assistance, helping his freegan daughter to liberate his religious zealot son from a cult.

The Astral was a delightful read and I would have been content for the story to continue to see what was next in store for Harry. It is a story about letting go and seeing things from another's perspective. Harry is introspective and perceptive making this an excellent read for anyone who is drawn to character-driven novels. In addition to Harry Quick, Christensen has created a cast of richly drawn characters, including Luz whose rage has consumed her life, care-worn and worried daughter Karina who struggles to maintain her idealized lifestyle and care for her troubled family, and intense and spiritual son Hector who may not be all that he appears on the surface. Christensen has excelled at creating a portrait of a middle-aged bohemian poet which brings to mind characters created by John Irving (M) or John Updike (M).

The Senator's Wife (M) by Sue Miller is another sophisticated, compassionate story of a family in crisis. "Meri is newly married, pregnant, and standing on the cusp of her life as a wife and mother, recognizing with some terror the gap between reality and expectation. Delia—wife of the two-term liberal senator Tom Naughton—is Meri's new neighbor in the adjacent New England town house. Tom's chronic infidelity has been an open secret in Washington circles, but despite the complexity of their relationship, the bond between them remains strong. Soon Delia and Meri find themselves leading strangely parallel lives, as they both reckon with the contours and mysteries of marriage: one refined and abraded by years of complicated intimacy, the other barely begun. With precision and a rich vitality, Sue Miller—beloved and bestselling author of While I Was Gone—brings us a highly charged, superlative novel about marriage and forgiveness." publisher

Brooklyn is as much a character in The Astral as any other and it was easy to picture Harry Quirk bicycling from one location to another. Sunset Park (M) by Paul Auster features another group of artists in a communal life in Brooklyn. "Auster (Invisible) is in excellent form for this foray into the tarnished, conflicted soul of Brooklyn. New York native Miles Heller now cleans out foreclosed south Florida homes, but after falling in love with an underage girl and stirring the wrath of her older sister, he flees to Brooklyn and shacks up with a group of artists squatting in the borough's Sunset Park neighborhood. As Miles arrives at the squat, the narrative broadens to take in the lives of Miles's roommates-among them Bing, "the champion of discontent," and Alice, a starving writer-and the unlikely paths that lead them to their squat. Then there's the matter of Miles's estranged father, Morris, who, in trying to save both his marriage and the independent publishing outfit he runs, may find the opportunity to patch things up with Miles. " Publishers Weekly

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