Friday, June 28, 2013

Book Review: "Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence" by David Samuel Levinson

Do we have sole possession of our lives and what happens in them, or are they fodder for artists? That is a question David Samuel Levinson seeks to answer in his intriguing but ultimately frustrating novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence.

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 death—as well as his life, frustratingly unhappy because of the failure of his first novel after a savage review by an influential critic—drag 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.

1 comment:

  1. The story is vapid, empty of meaning or redemption and with an incredibly poor cast of characters (who were not well developed).
    I also found it irritating that none of the cast seem able to speak in more than one or two word sentences i.e. this "conversation" between Antonia and Ezra:

    "Where's Henry?"
    "Am I my father's keeper?"
    "That was a nasty thing you did. I have been nothing but kind to you."
    He blinked at her, dumbfounded. "What ... I don't ... what are you talking about?"
    "Don't play stupid with me," she said sharply.
    "Where's my father?" he asked, rising.
    "I just asked you that. Besides Henry has nothing to do with this."
    Ezra was laughing, "He has everything to do with everything."

    Okay ... so seriously, that was taken from pg 141.
    There is no development of character and no development of thought either ... well, except when the only way the "plot" is presented is through the "thoughts" and "thinking" of the players in the story. They think of their pasts, their regrets, their wishes, their loved ones (living & dead) and drop information that is supposed to lead us to the point of the story.
    Then mysterious characters clumsily appear without introduction or meaning - from behind bushes or on darkened porches. What? Who are these people? Where do they belong? Well, to find out we must wait for a daughter, lover or widow to get alone so he/she can "think" this person in to the story by reminiscing in thought.
    So ... do you get it? Me either. I didn't even finish the book ... I spent too much time calling my daughter to read out loud some of the insipid lines from almost every page. It was just taking too much time.

    ... so from that you get the point. Or maybe you don't. I know I didn't.