Friday, June 28, 2013
Book Review: "Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence" by David Samuel Levinson
In Winslow, a small college town in upstate New York, Catherine Strayed continues to mourn the mysterious death of her writer husband, Wyatt. No one is sure whether his death was an accident, a suicide, or a murder, but he left their house one morning, ostensibly to get groceries, and never returned. Catherine's questions about Wyatt's deathas well as his life, frustratingly unhappy because of the failure of his first novel after a savage review by an influential criticdrag her down and plague her days.
Catherine's attempts to move her life forward following Wyatt's death are complicated by the constant presence of Henry Swallow, the literary critic who essentially ended Wyatt's career before it got started. Henry took a position as Wyatt's boss at Winslow College shortly before his death. Beyond the fact that Catherine blames Henry, the two share a history, as he was her former mentor and lover.
Henry's newest protegé, Antonia Lively, has also come to town. Young Antonia (significantly Henry's junior) is the toast of the literary world with the publication of her first novel, which Henry championed. But what Henry doesn't know is that Antonia's novel is essentially a retelling of an incident she was told about, a incident with ramifications on many people in her life, but Antonia doesn't care about the damage this story may inflict. And Antonia has her sights set even closer to home with her second novel, as she plans to get to the root of the rivalry between Wyatt and Henry, and the mysterious scandals in their lives, not to mention Catherine's role in all of it. Antonia infiltrates Catherine's life, which has harmful consequences.
This book had a lot of promise and I was tremendously intrigued to see how the story would unfold, and figure out what all the mysteries were. Unfortunately, the compelling parts of the plot were mired down by extremely unlikable characters, and a bizarre, unnecessary shift in narration which was supposed to provide a mysterious twist at the end, but fell flat. Catherine is so weighted down by indecision, so fraught with emotion, and you don't know what is really happening to her and what she's hallucinating. Henry vacillates between being the one willing to say the truth and someone so irritating you don't understand his appeal, and Antonia is utterly unsympathetic.
I think Levinson raises some very intriguing questions about whether our lives are, in essence, public domain for artists to use as inspiration (or steal wholeheartedly, in some cases). Unfortunately, a tremendously compelling plot got lost amidst characters who continually frustrate you.