Thursday, June 13, 2013

Book Review May We Be Forgiven

May We Be Forgiven has the capacity to haunt, and that is a point in the book's favor. However, I have many points against and several unanswered questions.

Harold Silver, a mediocre college professor with lumpen students, confronts a family crisis when his brother George kills two people in a car accident. Harold stays in his brother's house to comfort his wife, and ends up in his brother's bed, in his brother's wife. Brother George finds them when he somehow escapes the mental unit where he's been restrained; whereupon George murders his wife by slamming her over the head with a lamp. Harold feels guilty about this.

However, Harold readily moves in to George's house, wears his brother's clothes, assumes custody of his brother's children, and has full access to his brother's money. Therefore, it's not too terrible for Harold when he gets fired from his three-class-a-week "professor" job. He will just finish his 1300-page tome on Richard Nixon, with whom he is obsessed. While working on his manuscript, George next gets distracted with a couple of nutty sex buddies, one of whom abandons her parents into Harold's custody, and through the ensuing hi-jinx he manages personal growth.

Cheryl, the sex buddy who didn't abandon Harold, turns out to be a relative of Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who makes arrangements for Harold to edit some recently discovered short fiction by Richard M. Nixon. Going up the elevator building where he does the editing, Harold encounters, if that is the word, an unidentifiable Nixon imitator who stands behind him and says mean things to him. What is this about? We will have to draw our own conclusions.

Meanwhile, George's kids do OK, and George and Harold's mother finds a new lease on life in the nursing home, so she can fake-marry her boyfriend in a moving ceremony. Harold visits her often, ditto his Aunt Lillian who serves him toll-house cookies out of a battered tin. These cookies, facsimilies thereof actually, figure in a wild adventure when George--the murderer brother, remember--gets transfered to a woodsman-survivor penal experiment and becomes friends with a bad guy terrorist. Harold is forced to help government spooks extract the bad guy. On the way out of the woods the spook who is driving Harold's (or is it George's?) car runs over something (or someone) that leaves the car a bloody wreck; and we will have to draw our own conlusions about that incident as well.

The adventures continue: Harold is bonding with the children and adopting the child of the two people George killed in the car accident; then he is flying a bunch of people over to South Africa for a bar mitzvah in 'Nateville," a village that George's 12-year-old son had visited in a Habitat kind of way. All kinds of fireworks ensue, including almost getting kidnapped by some bad guys on their way back to the airport to go home. Nobody gets hurt; Harold takes a medicine man's tea doses, and seemingly feels exorcised of his demons. Whatever they were; you'll draw your own conclusions.

The novel could be described as an upscale version of Anne Tyler's Saint Maybe (where the protagonist finds redemption through raising his dead brother's stepchildren) combined with the sensibilities and improbabilities of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. It also reminds me of Laurie Colwin's Happy All the Time, a morality tale around the notion that if only people would behave and do the tasks set before them, life could be beautiful. In the end of May We Be Forgiven, Harold's family with all the old people (old and new) and children (old and new) enjoy a wonderful Thanksgiving with just enough crabbiness to try for versimilitude. In the end, as a reader, I felt not resolved or entertained but manipulated. And as I said, I was also left with questions.

1) Why is story narrated in the first person? I thought Harold might be unreliable narrator but he turned out to be an unreliable unreliable narrator. The author keeps laying down hints that there aren't any tricks, there is no other shoe that is going to drop, that it really is a book about second chances. Yet I couldn't help hoping the whole thing would turn out that actually he, Harold, is the murderer in the mental hospital having a giant fantasy that he is living his brother George's life. No such luck.

2) Why does the story have to "jump the shark" so many times? What is the purpose? Did we have to have so much strain on our disbelief? Why so many twists and turns, some of which I've omitted in the review. Couldn't Homes make her point in a less ridiculous way? It's just plain irritating.

3) Why does money never have to be a problem? I was itching for the money to go poof so the narrator would have to open a boarding house. As it so happens, the people he takes in all have ample means of support (in addition to getting along perfectly).

In conclusion, the novel was a good read, but it got on my nerves. It's just all a little too ridiculous and a little too easy. It feels like pyrotechnics are trying to cover up a lack of real dramatic conflict. But as I said, I am just not sure I get it.


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