Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Baxter's The Feast of Love is one of my very favorite novels ever, containing in the space of just a few pages one of my favorite words ("truculent"), one of my favorite semi-comic comeuppance scenes, and a moment so heartrending that it made me gasp aloud with emotional pain the first time I read it. Needless to say, it's a hard act to follow, although I was inspired to try a second Baxter book by the 2nds Challenge 2011. So perhaps I can be forgiven for considering this novel a less successful attempt at illuminating the human condition.
Baxter's ability to capture and display quirky characters is very much at the forefront of this sibling-based exploration of familial love. Brother Hugh is a married, settled, mildly dissatisfied, rather soft and lumpish man who clearly peaked in high school (hockey, girls, etc.) before flunking out of college and returning to his home town to sell cars. Sister Dorsey got the brains of the family and has successfully pursued a doctorate in astrophysics, but for all those smarts, her life is a series of unusual liaisons and dangerous near-misses that periodically tests Hugh's brotherly promise to look out for her.
The novel begins with Hugh and Dorsey as adults, and each chapter tells an earlier story of their lives and relationships, devolving back in time to the very first time Hugh sees his little sister Dorsey, five years younger, in the hospital, just after she is born.
This is a nice literary device, but I found it strangely irritating. The characters were much more interesting to me as adults, and their regression into childhood did not seem particularly revealing. A few details provided the "ah-ha" moments that make literature enjoyable, but mostly I felt that the set-up of adult life followed by childhood details required me to decipher their present-day relationship before being given the tools to do so.
The obvious solution is to read the first few chapters again -- knowing what I know now -- but I'm just not interested enough in Hugh and Dorsey to do it. Clearly Baxter's aptitude for quirky characters that make a reader care took a quantum leap three years later with The Feast of Love. Now there's a book that's worth reading again.
He looks out onto the grass and thinks he sees some silver forks lying on the lawn, lit by the high-altitude cloud lightning, which makes the backyard appear to be black and white, a landscape of tarnished metal. The keys. Hugh's keys are still out there somewhere on the grass . . . . The hot summer night air presses against his skin like a heavy paw. Up above him, at the second-floor window, his sister gazes down at him, and he sees her there, a small familiar figure in white, standing in the room where she once, long ago, grew up. He waves, but she moves back as if she hasn't seen him. When he hears thunder, Hugh bends down and begins to search in the burned grass for his keys, the ones to the car and the house and the garage and his office door . . . [and] when the first drop of rain falls on his back, he hasn't found what he's looking for, but he knows he will, in a moment or two.