Family, family, family -- and wonkery

Novels of March

March 14, 2004|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

Award-winning Korean-American novelist Chang-rae Lee (Native Speaker, A Gesture Life) writes about the complications of American life with a nuanced attention that is awesome. His third novel, Aloft (Riverhead, 352 pages, $24.95), unfolds like a little origami box, each fold revealing yet another aspect of the complexities of aspirations, avocations and ethnicities as they coalesce in the life of one Long Island family.

At 59, Italian-American Jerry Battle enjoys early retirement until his live-in girlfriend of 20-odd years, the Puerto Rican Rita, dumps him. Then his son Jack runs the family landscaping business into the ground, his daughter Theresa and her fiance come to visit for the summer and his father, Hank, rankles in a retirement home. This is a family at odds from within and without -- embattled. Lee utilizes metaphors artfully but without artifice (Jerry is happiest when flying his small plane; hence the title).

Lee illumines Jerry's thoughts in the best Cheeveresque manner. As Jerry finds his life suddenly and rapidly changing, he muses on his dead wife and her free-fall into psychosis, and analyzes his children's looks. (His wife was Asian. Jack looks Italian-American, but Theresa looks Asian, leading her to deconstruct ethnicity in her career as an academic).

In this rich, tragi-comic and thoroughly engrossing novel of suburban American life, Lee puts a masterful and poetic touch on the interstices of fragile emotional lives.

Tom Perotta cunningly deconstructed the world of adolescence in his previous novels, Election and Joe College. Little Children (St. Martin's Press, 355 pages, $24.95) moves solidly into the terrain of young suburbanite parents to equally startling effect. Everyone in Perotta's novel feels shortchanged: In less-than-perfect marriages, each feels he or she has settled in order to have a family, and while they love their children, they do not like the milieu that child-rearing has foisted upon them.

Dreams have been exchanged for afternoons at the playground; Todd, Sarah, Richard and Mary Ann all seem to love their children more than their spouses, and as their lives intersect, they also combust. Disaffection leads to lust, infidelity, light perversion and shattered lives. Tossed into the mix: a child molester in the community, which further propels the action.

Perotta deftly combines the darkness of A.M. Homes with the archness of Updike in this incisive novel, by turns wickedly funny and deeply poignant.

Arthur Henning, an Austrian Jewish tailor, survived the Nazis but lost his entire family, except for his young son, Toby. He comes to 1950s America as a refugee and becomes a driver / handyman on the New York estate of the upper-class Duvalls.

The nexus of Carrie Brown's Confinement (Algonquin, 368 pages, $24.95) is the small horrors that alter Henning's life in America: the banishment of Aggie, the Duvalls' only child, to a home for unwed mothers and the subsequent adoption of her baby; and an argument with Toby that ends with his son leaving home.

Despite his losses to the Nazis, the losses of Toby and Aggie's baby haunt Henning most -- the confinement is both Aggie's and his. Brown's carefully crafted novel illumines the tragedies of a life with a harrowing beauty.

In 2000, dot.coms are making money hand over fist until the Internet boom goes bust. Boomtown (Overlook, 304 pages, $24.95), Greg Williams' first novel, is a portrait of a dot.com in free fall. Jonathan Scarver, the company's CEO, and Brad Smith, the head of PR, can think only of the huge payoff that will come with a stock offering.

Juxtaposed with Scarver's questionable business deals and Smith's increasingly frivolous lifestyle are the surveillance of Steven Bluestein, the company's systems manager, who reads all the employees' e-mails, and the struggles of Nicole Garrison, an aspiring actress who has left her fiscally sound but slimey boyfriend.

Williams writes lovingly of his characters' foibles and gives this serious novel about the business world the edge and swift pacing of a thriller.

In New York Times writer Lev Grossman's exhilarating literary tour de force, Codex (Harcourt, 368 pages, $24), Edward Wozny, an up-and-coming investment banker, has two weeks to tie up loose ends in New York before he transfers to London. But his firm asks him to do a personal favor for an important client before he leaves. The favor seems innocuous enough: Uncrate and organize a personal library of rare books. But Wozny soon finds himself in a tug of war between the library's owner, an English duke, and his wife, the charming duchess, who wants a divorce.

Wozny searches the library for a medieval English manuscript by Gervase of Langford, a document that will give the duchess enough ammunition about the authenticity of the duke's family line to secure her a hefty divorce settlement.

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