On the ninth floor of her apartment building, Stella falls in love
with Martin, the man who delivers her olive green couch. Stella and
Martin sit on that couch, make love on that couch, and eat on that
couch. Their children play on that couch. Several years later a
fat, unattractive detective questions Martin about Stella's death
from that couch.
More a character study than a mystery, STELLA DESCENDING is
deceptively larger than its 247 pages. It is not a study in
cheerful characters either. Each of them seems to possess peculiar,
even unnatural, quirks. Linn Ullmann has a vivid imagination when
it comes to creating personalities. She has brought together a
group of dysfunctional people with little or no joy in their lives,
the possible exception being Stella, who finds snatches of it on a
rare occasion --- and often on that olive green couch.
While the book is titled STELLA DESCENDING, I found myself
wondering who the story was really about. Maybe it is simply an
analysis of life, a look at people in miserable situations. Despite
the dark tenor of the story, much of the prose here sings.
Conversations share the banter of familiarity while the
descriptions are full and rich. Ullman can definitely write.
The mystery comes in when Martin and Stella teeter on the edge of
their rooftop, nine floors above the streets of Oslo. They embrace.
She falls. Or maybe he pushed her. The witnesses cannot seem to
agree. Corinne, a police detective with an uncanny nose for guilt,
carries on her investigation in the form of interviews, mostly with
the widower Martin. The interviews take a rather unconventional
form. Corinne sits across the dining room table from Martin --- or
on the olive green couch --- first telling him stories and then
asking him to tell her stories. She seems to scrutinize his answers
but has already made up her mind about his involvement. Stella's
oldest daughter, Amanda, is convinced her stepfather murdered her
Most of her narration, however, deals with her adolescent sexual
appetite and her attitude toward those around her, which on her
best day is disdainful. She comes off as exceptionally
self-centered, even for a teenager. Axel, a 70-something friend of
Stella, incessantly grouses about being alive. Occasionally,
though, he does reminisce, indulging himself in fond memories of
tall, slim Stella. But aside from the warmth he feels at those
times, he is a walking definition of the word "cantankerous". I'd
add "old coot." And then there's Martin. His motivations appear
nonsensical and left me wondering whether he was entirely sane. He
has some wholly inappropriate dreams about his daughter, tells the
children horrific tales, and seems to vacillate between love and
disgust for Stella.
Martin, Stella, Amanda and the bit players all have many, and
unique, dimensions. Ullman builds them layer upon layer and allows
us to see inside their thoughts --- thoughts mostly from the dark
side, and very unhappy ones. STELLA DESCENDING is worth a read if
only for the character sketches.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 23, 2011