Reading a Ward Just novel is like sitting down to a meal of your favorite comfort food. The writing is both simple and elegant and, most importantly, nourishing for the reader's soul. In an era of glitz and 700-page novels, Just writes in a style reminiscent of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. His audience cares about his characters, who are involved in life-impacting events to which many readers themselves can relate.
FORGETFULNESS is Just's fifteenth novel. While the author is not a household name, his literary accomplishments suggest that he certainly should be. Previous works include ECHO HOUSE, a National Book Award finalist, and AN UNFINISHED SEASON, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. FORGETFULNESS is a worthy companion to these earlier books. It is a thoughtful novel intertwining questions of justice, mercy, friendship and patriotism into a strong and meaningful story.
While the main character is American expatriate and artist Thomas Railles, the opening scenes of the novel are presented through the eyes of his wife, Florette. She has gone for a hike in the mountain region near their home in France, but then falls and injures her leg. Four men discover Florette and kidnap her, ultimately murdering her in the woods. Florette's death is presented through her words and thoughts. Throughout the opening chapter Just increases the anxiety that Florette must feel as she recognizes that her would-be rescuers have instead become her assassins. Her death is not simply the unspeakable act of madmen; the French government labels her murder "a terrorist act."
Florette's death occurs while Railles is holding an informal reunion with two friends, Bernhard and Russ, from his youth. The men are more than friends --- they are longtime employees of the CIA who have used Thomas on occasion as a spy. Indeed, Thomas initially fears that Florette's death is an act of retribution for some previous act of espionage. Bernhard and Russ promise Thomas that they will keep him inside the loop on the investigation into his wife's murder.
As a novel FORGETFULNESS explores a broad emotional gamut of grief, revenge, guilt and forgiveness. Railles grieves not only for his wife, but also for his neighbor St. John Granger, an Englishman who deserted the field of battle during World War I. At times the reader may question who Railles misses more. In a superb confrontation, Granger's American heir arrives in France to quickly dispose of her relative's property. Her meeting with Railles is uncomfortable on several levels; she dislikes France and cannot understand why Railles would choose to live anywhere but in America. This initial meeting between two Americans with substantially different attitudes and beliefs towards their country is a microcosm of the ongoing debate of patriotism in America today.
As the reader knows it must eventually happen, Florette's murderers are captured by the French government. Thomas is summoned to LaHarve to view the interrogation of the culprits. He meets the French investigator, Antoine, himself a complex man, who spends his free time acting in French comedies. He receives permission to meet alone with the person suspected of killing Florette. In the pages of the meeting, readers will examine questions and thoughts about our contemporary world, about terrorism, patriotism, revenge and forgiveness.
In his simple yet elegant style Just provides readers with much to ponder about a modern world that seems more interested in solutions based on simple slogans rather than on difficult choices. In the end Thomas sits in a café in France and ponders his life to the music of Billie Holliday. FORGETFULNESS is another marvelous novel by an equally superb author. Some have described Just as the best writer you have never heard of. Finding new authors is one of the joys of reading. If you have not yet done so, read a Ward Just novel. It will not be your last.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 22, 2011