Review

The Embers

by Hyatt Bass

Back in 1994, the Ascher family didn’t realize how good
they had it. Oh, they probably did, on some level --- the wealthy
family with the large Manhattan apartment, the summer home in the
Berkshires, the sustaining marriage, the circle of fascinating and
intellectual friends, the well-behaved, accomplished children. They
knew they were lucky. They just didn’t appreciate the
fragility of it all, until it came crashing down around them.

Laura and Joe Ascher have been married for 20 years. When they
first met, she was a wealthy socialite with a promising future in
acting; he was a struggling playwright. Twenty years later, the
tables have turned. Although the couple still lives in the
apartment left to them by Laura’s parents, Joe is now the
successful, Tony-winning playwright, while Laura is primarily known
as the stylish but unassuming mother of teenaged children Thomas
and Emily. There have been strains over the years, brought upon by
the pressures of fame and the expectations of an artistic
lifestyle. But the couple has remained strong --- until Joe, in a
moment of weakness, acts out in real life the philandering persona
he creates in his one-man dramas.

This marital crisis coincides with 15-year-old Emily’s
growing rebellion: her experimentation with alcohol and drugs, her
relationship with an actor twice her age. Emily’s bad
behavior is another cause for Laura and Joe’s increasing
anxiety and tension in their marriage. Thomas has always been the
“good” child, the well-behaved one, the studious one,
the one nobody ever had to worry about. That is, until a
frightening diagnosis forces the whole family to refocus their
attention and threatens to tear them apart.

Nearly 15 years later, Emily’s approaching wedding is the
catalyst for the family to revisit the events of that horrific
winter and spring, to finally address what happened and who was to
blame. In the intervening years, Laura and Joe have divorced; Laura
has happily remarried, and Joe has grown nearly elderly, his
flashes of creative brilliance interrupted by moments of
forgetfulness and physical frailty. Emily, who abruptly changed
from wild child to model student, has striven to lead the kind of
life Thomas would have. A successful public defender, she has found
fulfillment in her work and happiness with her fiancé, despite
her often strained relationship with her mother and her
near-estrangement from her formerly beloved father. But when Emily
chooses the site of the family’s old Berkshire home for her
wedding ceremony, old memories and resentments are dredged up, and
the remaining Aschers must relive the tragic events that brought
them to where they are today.

Hyatt Bass is a debut novelist with a background in
screenwriting and film direction. It’s no surprise,
therefore, that THE EMBERS has a cinematic feel, both in its style
of storytelling (in which events from 2007 and 2008 are
interspersed with the slowly unfolding story of what happened in
1994 and 1995) and in its highly visual descriptive passages:
“She gazed up at the clouds moving slowly across the sky,
thick and lumpy in their centers, thinning out and breaking up
around the edges like flour sifted onto a blue counter.” Both
of these elements mark Bass as a gifted writer whose storytelling
acumen and evocative prose speak to her real potential as a
novelist.

There are a few hallmarks of the first-time author here --- a
couple of character relationships, in particular, are developed
only to drop out abruptly --- but they are far outweighed by
Bass’s clarity of prose and her profound understanding of and
sympathy for her characters. Emily and Joe, daughter and father,
are the foci of the novel’s attention; the pair are
remarkably well-developed at two very different points in their
lives and careers. In addition to being a profoundly touching
portrait of a family in and after crisis, THE EMBERS is a poignant
meditation on the relationship between art and life, on the
simultaneously creative and destructive potential of an artistic
vocation, on the choices people make when a good person is taken
away too soon.

What do we make of the lives we have left to us?, asks the novel
--- a provocative question among many that makes THE EMBERS an
excellent choice for book discussion groups.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 21, 2011

The Embers
by Hyatt Bass

  • Publication Date: June 23, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
  • ISBN-10: 0805089942
  • ISBN-13: 9780805089943