Saturday, March 18, 2017

Review: "Stranger, Father, Beloved" by Taylor Larsen

With proud echoes of Lionel Shriver, Kelly Braffet and, most notably, Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, Strange, Father Beloved, the debut novel of author Taylor Larsen is a tight, eloquent literary act of subterfuge whose twist, as obvious as it should have bee, snuck up on my easily and made this tale of suburban woe one of the more resonate novels I have read this year. With quiet language, direct dialogue and near gothic descriptions of Rhode Island upper crust suburban dwellings, Larsen takes apart a man’s carefully constructed life, showing the wounds hidden behind ill fitting bandages, the cracks in the refinished ceiling broken souls who sleep beside each other, alas alone, in master bedrooms. It has been quite a long while since I have read such a brilliant and hypnotic take on the kind of depression that seems to fester away in those whose lives are seemingly picturesque, at least by anyone who is alive (Richard Yates, who I recently read, immediately came to mind). It is hard to plum such excavated depths and come up with something not only good and engaging but also original and truly thought provoking, and this book did so and ruefully smashed my expectations. It begins at a party, the last party, as we are told, of Michael and Nancy, a couple who seem to live a life of ease and modest yet substantial wealth. We see all this through Michael’s eyes. We see him float from one person to the next, talking with them briefly, ruminating on their relationship and moving on. We don’t get much of a clue as to the motional devastation that awaits us when he spots a stranger talking to his wife. He sees the man with his wife, and all of the sudden, he realizes that this is the man his wife is supposed to marry. The rest of the novel, he methodically tries to insert this man, named John, into his family’s life, which not only includes Nancy, but his teenaged daughter Ryan and their young son Max, who has a severe case of asthma. We learn more about each one as the novel progresses. We learn about Michael’s mental breakdowns and his strained relationship with his tough father. We learn about Nancy, who Michael settled for after he abandoned his mission to become a professor, and her tolerance of Michael’s chaotic manor. And for me, the best part was entering the world of Ryan, who we slowly find out near the end is following Michael’s winding road of self deception and regret. The book has quite a few scenes that stuck with me, one, and the book’s strongest scene, involves Ryan’s cruel treatment of an old friend’s mother, and a short scene involving Michael and an old college friend, which holds the book’s painful truth in it’s brief couple of sentences. Never showy, over the top or full of itself, this fantastic novel if a brilliant character study of a man coming to terms with his life and the painful realization that it’s too late.

Rating: 5/5

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