Thursday, July 14, 2016

Book Review: "Christodora" by Tim Murphy

When I think of books that read like a movie, I often think of crime novels and thrillers, because as riveting as action or chase sequences might be to read, they always raise your pulse another few notches when you watch them unfold.

Tim Murphy's Christodora couldn't be further from that type of book, but its tremendously memorable cast of characters, a plot spanning 30+ years, and the sheer emotional power of its story would truly lend itself to a powerful film adaptation. I'd love to watch these characters interact in front of my eyes, as they've not yet gotten out of my mind even several days after I finished the book.

The Christodora is one of those iconic apartment buildings in New York City's East Village, once on the fringe of the city's urban decay. Jared Traum, a sculptor, lives with his artist wife, Milly, in an apartment that has belonged to his family for years. Their neighbor, Hector Villanueva, was once a noted AIDS activist, but he now spends his days in a drug-addicted haze, and his life crosses paths with the Traums and their adopted son, Mateo, in more ways than they can imagine.

The book spans back and forth through time. It starts in the 1980s, where Milly's mother, Ava, is a New York City health department official caught up at the start of the AIDS epidemic and the resulting fears and prejudices that hampered the city's response to the disease for so long. Ava takes Hector under her wing until he becomes part of the movement which demands accountability and appropriate treatment. Meanwhile, Ava is dealing with her own struggles with mental illness, which play out throughout Milly's life, and shape her decisions both consciously and unconsciously. The book traces Milly and Jared's relationship, and their decision to adopt young Mateo, and follows Mateo into adulthood, as he battles his own demons and searches for his own identity, and runs through the 2020s, as the ramifications of many of the characters' decisions continue to impact their lives.

Christodora is a richly told, beautifully written, and tremendously moving story about family, love, loss, ambition, battling one's demons, overcoming obstacles both physical and emotional, and the bravery needed to move on. I've seen the book referred to as an "AIDS novel," and while the epidemic and those involved in the battles against this horrible disease play a significant part in the story, it relies just as heavily on the emotional, professional, and romantic struggles of its characters. Murphy does a fantastic job creating complex characters and getting you heavily invested in their stories—it took a tremendous amount of composure not to dissolve into tears more than a few times while finishing the book on an airplane!

The book is not without its imperfections. The narration meanders from time period to time period, character to character, and it took a while to have everything coalesce in my mind. There are a lot of characters, some more peripheral than others, so I struggled periodically to keep everyone straight. And while I loved these characters so much, I found Milly's character to be somewhat rigid and unsympathetic, although I understood why. But the truth is, these issues are minor frustrations which didn't dull my emotional investment and, truthfully, my sheer love of this book.

NetGalley and Grove Atlantic provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!


  1. I was eager to hear what you thought. You've probably heard it is being adapted into a miniseries of sorts by Ira Sachs.

    1. I actually didn't hear that. It probably will work better that way than in the movies.