There’s true pleasure in watching an accomplished novelist skillfully create a multilayered story that combines complex and intensely interesting characters with an absorbing plot. In her latest novel, Siri Hustvedt has accomplished that task with sensitivity and quiet passion.
Following the death of their elderly father, Lars Davidsen, a history professor at a small Minnesota college, his children Erik, a New York psychotherapist, and Inga, a cultural critic, find themselves in the family home sifting through their father’s papers. In the course of their search they encounter a letter dated June 27, 1937 that states: “Dear Lars, I know you will never ever say nothing about what happened. We swore it on the BIBLE. It can’t matter now she’s in heaven or to the ones here on earth. I believe in your promise. Lisa.” That discovery launches the siblings on a quest to find the truth about the event that prompted the cryptic message. While their patient investigation eventually uncovers that truth, it’s only one of several mysteries revealed in the course of this intricately plotted novel.
Woven through Erik’s first person narrative are excerpts from a journal kept by Lars Davidsen that recount fragments of family history on a farm in Depression-era Minnesota and continues through Lars’s service in the bloody battles of the South Pacific in World War II. Intriguingly, as Hustvedt reveals in her acknowledgements, the journal segments are drawn from a family memoir written by her father, who died in 2003. Through the journal, Erik gradually learns of the hardships that shaped his family and gains new insights into the mind of this decent if emotionally constricted man, groping for an understanding of the “earlier generations who occupy the mental terrain within us and the silences on that old ground, where shifting wraiths pass or speak in voices so low we can’t hear what they are saying.”
Alongside these family stories, events in Erik’s life take a dark turn. Miranda Casaubon, a book designer and artist, and her precocious five-year-old daughter Eglantine rent an apartment on the ground floor of his Brooklyn house, and he is quickly, if disturbingly, drawn into the circle of their lives. He discovers photographs, some of them defaced, of the mother and daughter and learns they’re being stalked by a performance artist named Jeffrey Lane, Miranda’s former lover and Eglantine’s father. Soon Lane adds photographs of Erik to his collection, and the tension between them builds to an inevitable confrontation.
Erik’s character also is revealed through the counseling sessions he conducts with his patients, identified only as “Mr. T.” or “Ms. W.” In these often frustrating and sometimes painful encounters, Hustvedt exposes the benefits and limitations of psychoanalysis, using them to explore Erik’s internal struggles --- his growing attraction to Miranda, his unease over Lane’s bizarre activities and his desire to deepen his understanding of his father’s life. As Erik’s own psychotherapist reminds him, “We’re fragmented beings who cement ourselves together, but there are always cracks. Living with the cracks is part of being, well, reasonably healthy.”
Erik’s sister, Inga, wrestles with her own demons. Her husband, Max Blaustein, a prominent novelist and screenwriter, has been dead for several years, and now other writers, from an aggressive magazine reporter to Max’s biographer, seek to penetrate the mysteries of his life. When Inga discovers that the star of one of Max’s movies possesses some of his letters, she is forced to reassess her understanding of Max’s life.
As much as it is a family chronicle, this novel is a story of memory, reminding us that “our memories are forever being altered by the present --- memory isn’t stable, but mutable.” It’s a tale of secrets, exploring the lengths we will go to preserve them and the toll that effort exacts. And through Hustvedt’s skillful portrayal of Erik’s counseling sessions and the active dream lives of her characters, it’s a vivid exposition of the power of dreams.
THE SORROWS OF AN AMERICAN is a pensive, subtle novel. Still, strong undercurrents of tension --- psychological, emotional and erotic --- surge through its pages. Siri Hustvedt demonstrates an acute and honest willingness to engage with powerful, sometimes disturbing emotions. It’s that engagement that makes this book such an admirable work.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 23, 2011
The Sorrows of an American