Monday, July 9, 2018
Book Review: "Virgil Wander" by Leif Enger
Virgil Wander is the slightly curmudgeonish owner of The Empress, a movie theater in decline in the town of Greenstone, Minnesotawhich is also in the midst of its decline. One evening, on a snowy night in early autumn, Virgil's car goes flying off a bridge and into the frigid Lake Superior. Fortunately, the owner of the town's local salvage yard happened to be hunting for saleable wares on the shore when Virgil's car went airborne, so he was able to save Virgil's life.
Amazingly, Virgil comes out of the accident concussed, struggling with finding the correct words (particularly adjectives) and living with the memory lapses typical of those sustaining brain injuries. At the same time, he emerged with a different personality, more endearing, decisive, friendly, caringqualities which are much appreciated by the motley group of friends and townspeople who live in Greenstone.
"If I were to pinpoint when the world began reorganizing itselfthat is, when my seeing of it began to shiftit would be the day a stranger named Rune blew into our bad luck town of Greenstone, Minnesota, like a spark from the boreal gloom."
Into this broken town comes Rune, an affable Norwegian man and kite-creating magician. He came after learning that his last trip to the United States years and years ago led to the birth of a son he never knew aboutonly to learn that this son, minor league baseball pitcher Alec Sandstrom, had died, in a mysterious plane crash. Alec was a mythical figure in the small town, and his disappearance still affected many, including his widow, Nadine, and their teenage son, Bjorn.
As Rune tries to assemble a portrait of the son he never knew, and perhaps start a relationship with the grandson he didn't know he had, he and Virgil build a close friendship, with each depending on each other. But the gorgeous kites that Rune creates and flies captivate the town's residents, who feel freer, unburdened after taking a turn at the strings.
However, Greenstone has been known as a town of hard luck for many years, and it will continue to live up to its reputation. The town's residents experience tragedies, strange occurrences, and the return of a prodigal son whose presence both enlivens and frightens. And while Greenstone's residents show their characteristic resilience, they also experience moments of extreme joy and connection, all set against the gorgeous, open, Midwestern landscape.
This is a difficult book to describe, but it felt so wonderful, almost like a hug in literary form. The novel meanders a bit, and these characters are definitely Midwestern Quirky, but they are so charming and endearing. At times it almost takes on a fairy-tale quality, but it isn't fantastical or beyond the pale of reality, for the most part.
Virgil Wander is a book about rebuilding your life and finding yourself again, about fighting the battles you need to in order to move on, about friendship, family, love, and the charm of a small town where everyone knows everyone's business. Enger is a magnificent writer, as evidenced by his two earlier books, Peace Like a River and So Brave, Young, and Handsome, and he deserves a place alongside writers such as Kent Haruf.
You won't be able to get this one out of your mindor your heart.
NetGalley and Grove Atlantic provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!