Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Book Review: "Wise Men" by Stuart Nadler

Stuart Nadler's terrific book explores the complex relationship between father and son, and how spending one's life trying to be something other than what is expected can be emotionally crippling. It's also a book about the powerful hold unrequited love has over you, and like Ian McEwan's Atonement, it's also a story of how a snap decision made in the heat of the moment can have life-changing implications.

Hilly Wise is a teenager growing up in New Haven when his father, Arthur, an ambulance-chasing attorney, lands a major case following a tragic plane crash. The case makes Arthur one of the wealthiest and most famous attorneys, reviled by airlines and other businesses, and sought after by individuals whose lives have been affected by tragedy. In the summer of 1952, Arthur moves his family to a beach house in the small town of Bluepoint on Cape Cod, where his law partner, Robert, also moves to an adjacent house on the property. Arthur and his wife easily settle into the life of the newly rich and powerful, but Hilly struggles.

In Bluepoint, Hilly meets Lem Dawson, the black man whose job it is to care for the Wises' house, and although Arthur discourages it, Hilly strikes up a tentative friendship with Lem, borne partly out of sympathy for the way his father treats Lem, partly out of curiosity and loneliness. Hilly finds himself falling in love with Lem's troubled niece, Savannah, although he is unsure exactly how to express his affection. And in one moment, a decision that Hilly makes has shattering consequences for all of them.

Years later, an adult Hilly, working as a reporter, tries to track Savannah down, in an effort to satisfy his longing and his curiosity at how her life turned out, as well as to assuage his guilt. But picking up where you left off—especially in a situation like this—is more difficult than one would imagine, and his relationship with his father once again leaves everything awry. And all of these feelings, and all of the familial history, continues to follow him through the rest of his life.

This is a powerful, well-told story about love, guilt, resentment, and trying to escape your destiny. Nadler does a great job creating a compelling story that transcends these familiar themes, and while Hilly at times seems a little too spineless and sad-sack, and Arthur seems to be a bit of a caricature at times, the narrative packs a resounding, emotional punch. Some of the plot you'll see coming, some you may not, but it's a story that will fascinate you, frustrate you, and ultimately, move you.

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