THE ASTRAL by Kate Christensen

Book Quote:

“My poor family was in shambles.

It had not always been thus. Ten years before, we’d been a solid unit, dollhouse style, mother, father, boy, and girl.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody  (AUG 1, 2011)

The Astral, by Kate Christensen, gets its title by way of its namesake, the Astral building in Brooklyn, New York. This building houses the protagonist of this book, an aging poet named Harry Quirk. His last name befits him and his family. They are interestingly dysfunctional in many ways.

Harry was once a somewhat well-known poet, teaching poetry workshops and writing his lyrical poems in rhyming and sonnet style. His publisher and mentor has moved to Europe and his style is now out of favor in the United States. His wife, Luz, decides after thirty years of marriage that Harry is having an affair with his best friend, Marion. Despite Harry’s pleading innocence – and he is innocent – Luz does not believe him and she kicks him out of their apartment in the Astral. It is true that Harry did have an affair twelve years ago with a young poetry student, but since that time he has been true to Luz.

Now homeless and without a job, Harry gets a room in a local flophouse and spends his days drinking at a local watering hole named Maureen’s. He finally lands a job at a Hasidic lumber yard through his crack-smoking Hasidic musician friend, Yanti. Here Harry works in accounts payable and is able to rent a one room apartment in the Astral. He figures that if he lives in the Astral, he’ll be closer to Luz and better able to keep an eye on her comings and goings. He is unable to accept that things are over with Luz and he is determined to win her back.

Harry’s daughter, Karina, is a freegan – she believes in getting all of her possessions for free. She gathers discarded things from the curbside, dumpster dives and goes to supermarket and restaurant trash bins to pick up food. She is very clear that the food she picks up consists only of tossed items with expired dates or unused edibles.

Harry’s son, Hector, is living on a commune and mired in a cult called Children of Hashem. They believe that the Messiah will be coming soon or is already here. Hector is being groomed as the new messiah and also is preparing to marry Christa, the cult’s leader. Karina and Harry want to do an intervention, hoping to get Hector out of the cult.

This is, in its way, a parody of today’s life and also a mirror of what is going on within a certain group of people. These people all live in a little area in Brooklyn and have been friends since the 1970’s. Despite Brooklyn being in New York City, this neighborhood is its own little enclave with everyone gossiping about everyone else. The friends are all interconnected, to the point of all of them seeing the same therapist. The novel makes a big deal of this and the unethical practice of Helen, the therapist they share.

The novel reminded me of what Zoe Heller does so well in her writing and what Christensen tries hard to accomplish but doesn’t quite succeed in pulling off. The parody comes off as stilted and without subtlety. For good parody to work, the reader must be able to see him or herself, or someone they can identify with, in the characters or culture. This doesn’t happen here. The characters are very black and white without hues of gray. For instance, Harry is a complete atheist and Hector and Luz are absolute believers. Things are described as either right or wrong. Luz is a moralistic bully while Harry is a moderate and giving guy. There is a lot of repetition of subject matter as if the author is not sure that the reader remembers what has transpired earlier.

Despite its flaws, Christensen can draw a good description and give frailty to the characters she creates. There is pathos, narcissism, stupidity, and a distinct humor to some of the characters and their situations. Though the book didn’t work for me as well as I’d have hoped, I think that a lot of readers would appreciate it more than I did.

I am a fan of Christensen’s and loved Trouble and The Epicure’s Lament. I continue to look forward to her writings.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 26 readers
PUBLISHER: Doubleday (June 14, 2011)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Kate Christensen
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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August 1, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Drift-of-Life, Family Matters, New York City, Satire, y Award Winning Author

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