Book Quote:

“Don’t we all assume we’ll do it differently, not repeat the past? We believe with all out hearts that we can rise above the things [our parents] couldn’t. Sometimes, our beliefs blind us.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate (AUG 19, 2010)

At first I thought this book was not for me as a male reviewer, for its focus is so much upon its central female character and her roles as daughter, wife, and mother. But I soon found Dori Ostermiller gripping me with her writing, and her uncanny ability to plot the emotional seismograph of a woman on the brink of an affair. “I want to ask if she ever felt she was falling through her life, pulled down through dream and memory by a force larger than gravity. I want to know if she felt the splintering pain of it — a terrible, fruitful pain like birth, a pain you can’t stop because you have to know what’s on the other side.”

The speaker is Sylvia Sandon, a 38-year-old artist living in the Berkshires, cautiously probing her mother about her own experience with adultery. Up to this point in the book, we have seen Sylvia in alternating chapters: as a rising teenager in California in the seventies caught on the edges of her mother’s affair, and as a mother herself three decades later, getting drawn into this affair of her own. While Ostermiller’s identification with the younger Sylvia is strong, her insight into the adult woman is extraordinary, as she struggles in vain against her attraction to the divorced father of one of her art students. One may not approve of Sylvia’s choices, but my goodness one feels for her.

Lurking in the background, however, is also the specter of child abuse. Not merely the physical violence that Sylvia’s father visited on her in his drunken rages, but the more subtle co-dependent relationship she was drawn into with both parents, which can be equally harmful in the long run. Sylvia’s mother recruited her daughters as allies, enablers, and secret-keepers in her long-running affair, playing into the unhealthy rivalry the girl was already feeling towards her father. Now Sylvia looks like repeating the mistake with her own children. Although the novel threatens to settle into a pattern in its middle section, Ostermiller keeps some surprises in store, showing that it may be possible to learn something from old errors. While avoiding facile conclusions, I found the outcome far more moving than I ever imagined I would.

It is not quite a perfect novel, though. It is hard to believe that Sylvia’s mother could keep her affair hidden from her husband for so long, when she even takes the children on holiday with her lover. More serious to me as a male reader is the comparative lack of dimension in Ostermiller’s male characters, unless she simply sees the world of men as inherently flawed. Sylvia has a tyrannical grandfather, a father given to outbursts of violence, and a well-meaning but excessively absent husband. To her credit, Ostermiller shows some of their good sides also, as when Sylvia, on the edge of her affair, is tormented by happy memories of her own courtship. But the male portraits are partial, and always seen through her eyes. Even Tai, the man she falls in love with, does not emerge as a character in his own right, so much as somebody who can touch Sylvia’s own private yearnings: “His lips fanned out inside the oval of his beard, broad and lonely, and it reminded me of the Northern California coast for some reason — a kind of beauty shot through with loss.”

And yet this is the imagery of an artist, which Sylvia is. When struggling to get a handle on her feelings, her confused emotions do become a kind of poetry. And I realize that Ostermiller is being entirely consistent in viewing her men exclusively through Sylvia’s eyes. Her mother’s lover is no more fleshed out than a young girl would see of him. Her own lover exists mainly in a dream world, because she never sees him in his everyday one. Her husband remains a shadow until she begins to think seriously about what she might be giving up by leaving him. I can admire the intensity of Ostermiller’s identification with Sylvia from a certain distance, but I bet there are many readers out there who will say: “In different circumstances, this might well be ME.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 30 readers
PUBLISHER: Mira; Original edition (July 27, 2010)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Dori Ostermiller
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Other books to explore:


August 19, 2010 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  В· Posted in: Contemporary, Debut Novel, Family Matters, NE & New York, Reading Guide

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