Book Club double shot: Netherland and The Women

Regular readers of this blog probably noticed that there have been no book club entries for quite some time (the last one was back in December).  That’s because this week was the first time we’ve been able to meet.  The January meeting got postponed so that folks could watch the Inauguration festitivites, and February got cancelled because of snow.  So, we decided to discuss two books — bad idea as it turns out because only a few of us (including me) were able to finish the second one.

First up was Joseph O’Neill’s outstanding novel Netherland, which just received the Pen/Faulkner award (nah, nah to the 14 publishers who foolishly turned O’Neill’s manuscript down before Random House picked it up).  My first reaction when we selected this one was, “not another novel about 9/11.”  Well, this is one of the best — it perfectly captures the sense of alienation and moorlessness that this event created in many New Yorkers.  Of course, it’s also about a lot more than the terrorist attacks — the central character, Hans, is a Dutch financial analyst who came to New York for a plush job and found his life turned upside down by the attacks. His English wife leaves him, taking along their young son.   This catapults Hans out of what appears to have been a pretty complacent life.  He finds some sense of community among his oddball neighbors in the Chelsea Hotel, as well as a multicultural community of fellow cricket enthusiasts. The one who most shakes up Hans’ life is the Trinidadian Chuck Ramkissoon, who introduces him to the weird side of New York immigrant life that wealthy residents (and tourists) seldom encounter.  Critics have called Ramkissoon “Gatsby-esque” — since my memories of that novel come mainly from the movie with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, I really don’t see the connection.  Like Gatsby, Ramkissoon meets an untimely end (we know this from the beginning of the novel so this is no spoiler), and he’s basically a fraud and an operator, but otherwise there is little resemblance to Fitzgerald’s character.  I enjoyed this book tremendously and may even re-read it so I can savor it all the more.

The other selection was The Women by T.C. Boyle.  This book has received a lot of positive buzz, and frankly, I don’t understand all the fuss.  Maybe I was spoiled by reading Loving Frank before this one, but honestly this is not Boyle’s best work. He uses the awkward device of having the story of Frank Lloyd Wright’s various wives and mistresses told through the point of view of Tadashi Sato, a composite character who works as an apprentice under Wright at his famed compound Taliesin.  Boyle does a good job of capturing Wright’s arrogance and cluelessness to the feelings of others around him, but his treatment of the women is rather shallow.  I think the novel would have been much better had he focused on developing his treatment of the eccentric community at Taliesin — i.e. did a midwestern version of Drop City — or had Sato play a role similar to that of Charles Ossining in The Road to Wellville, i.e. a naive young fellow who watches chaos erupt around him.  As always the writing is fabulous, but the structure of the book just did not work for me.

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