Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham


Jonathan and Bobby have been friends since seventh grade. Both were deeply marked, before they met, by losses and family pain. Their parents seem disconnected from their own lives. Bobby's father is an alcoholic. Jonathan's father lives in movies, spending virtually every waking hour in his failing movie theater, and his mother seems misplaced in her own skin. This sense of detachment is captured beautifully here, right after Jonathan's mother suffers a horrible loss:
I glanced at my mother. She was not crying. Her face was drained not only of color but of expression as well. She might have been a vacant body, waiting dumbfounded to be infused with a human soul. (p. 14)
Bobby and Jonathan come together, spending hours immersed in drugs and music. Their relationship is complicated -- are they like friends, brothers, or lovers? Later they come together as adults, sharing a life with Claire, a slightly older woman who dyes her hair vibrant orange and ekes out a living making jewelry from odd things, finding beauty in bits other people leave behind.

Claire and Jonathan fantasize about having a baby together, although Jonathan is gay. When Bobby comes into their lives, they all find themselves in love with each other, in an intense but messy, complicated way, and form an unconventional family. I started this book before I'd even left the library, and I was immediately pulled in by the author's gorgeous writing and keen eye for the telling minutiae of daily life. I was hooked from the first paragraph:
(narrated by Bobby) Once our father bought a convertible. Don’t ask me. I was five, He bought it and drove it home as casually as he’d bring a gallon of rocky road. Picture our mother’s surprise. She kept rubber bands on the doorknobs. She washed old plastic bags and hung them on the line to dry, a string of thrifty tame jellyfish floating in the sun. Imagine her scrubbing the cheese smell out of a plastic bag on its third or fourth go round when our father pulls up in a Chevy convertible, used but nevertheless—a moving metal landscape, chrome bumpers and what looks like acres of molded silver car-flesh. He saw it parked downtown with a For Sale sign and decided to be the kind of man who buys a car on a whim. We can see as he pulls up that the manic joy has started to fade for him. The car is already an embarrassment. He cruises into the driveway with a frozen smile that matches the Chevy’s grille. (p. 1)
As I got further into the book, I was a bit disappointed. The story is told by four different characters, but everyone's narrative sounds the same. The use of different points of view allowed us to hear the story from different perspectives, but it didn't establish each character as a unique person with his own way of thinking and speaking. And the slow, thoughtful, lyrical language, which I usually savored, sometimes gave me a sense of walking underwater; it felt slow and heavy. I started wishing the author had varied the style and pace a bit more.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help loving this book. Though I wished each person had a unique voice, I adored the writing and the characters were richly developed. They were deeply flawed, complicated, and so painfully real it was a bit unsettling. The author explored human relationships, and the myriad kinds of intimacy we seek, compassionately but with brutal honesty. We see all kinds of sexual relationships, both straight and gay, from a casual encounter in a bar to a lifelong marriage. They are not blissful or passionate nor are they meaningless. They are complicated -- full of mixed emotions. We see glimmers of real passion, mixed with awkwardness, detachment, dislike, and moments of deep tenderness. Various relationships, between spouses, lovers, friends, parents and children, are explored this way -- it seems incredibly real. For this alone, Michael Cunningham has won a permanent place in my heart. One of my favorite parts was about a character, who has been adrift most of her life, adapting to motherhood:
I never expected this, a love so ravenous it's barely personal. A love that displaces you, pushes you out of shape. I knew that if I was crossing the street with the baby and a car screamed around the corner, horn blaring, I'd shield her with my body. I'd do it automatically, the way you protect your head or heart by holding up your arms. You defend your vital parts with your tougher, more expendable ones. In that way, motherhood worked as promised. But I found that I loved her without a true sense of charity or goodwill. It was a howling, floodlit love; a frightening thing. (p. 274)
The three-way relationship between Jonathan, Bobby, and Claire, flawed as it was, intrigued me. Love definitely comes in unexpected forms. I saw an interview with Robin Wright, who played Claire in the movie adaptation. (Gotta love special features) She felt an important point, in Claire's relationship with these two men, was that no one person can be everything you need. Even as a person who's embraced lifelong monogamy, I agree with this. To expect a spouse or lover to fulfill all your needs is a recipe for failure. We glean different things we're seeking, often without consciously realizing it, from many people -- partners, friends, parents and children.

This novel delves into many other themes. One of the things that fascinated me most was how it explores death and the relationship between the living and the dead. One character mindfully absorbs a dead loved one into his own mind and personality, while another lays his late father to rest and tries to move on. It looks at the burgeoning AIDS academic in the 1980s and how it ravaged the gay community. This novel also explores coming of age, people's detachment from their own lives, and our yearning to find a lasting home and a sense of belonging.

This is a gorgeous, though flawed, novel about the complexity of human relationships. I am excited to have found a new-to-me author with a tremendous literary gift and sharp insight. I want to read more of his work. Next I'll try The Hours, but not until I've re-read Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, because these seem like two books that should be paired. Then I'll finally watch the movie adaptation of The Hours.

Note: I saw the movie adaptation of A Home at the End of the World recently, and I expected to love it. Quirky characters and complicated relationships are an easy sell with me, not to mention all that 70s and 80s music. Though the story thoroughly held my interest and I really liked the acting, I was underwhelmed -- I'm not sure why. Maybe there's just so much under the surface of this story that's difficult to capture on screen, even in the hands of gifted actors?  

Read More Reviews: Kristina's Book Blog; Bibliolatry

Rating: 4.5

5- Cherished Favorite4 - Keep in My Library3 - Good Read2 - Meh1 - Definitely Not
For Me

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