Longtime Brooklyn resident Kate Christensen (who recently moved to New Hampshire) seems to have a complicated relationship with the old neighborhood. She writes about Brooklyn with humor and sensitivity, but always with the clear-eyed realism, the details peculiar to those who know a place best:
"Just as Brooklyn is brought to life under Christensen's talented pen, so are her characters."
"Riding my bike...was pleasurable and entertaining... The route from Crown Heights to Red Hook was short and direct, but it ran through a mishmash of different villages and zones. Karina's neighborhood, wide avenues lined with brownstones and trees, gave onto a chaotic many-laned thoroughfare of chain stores and zooming traffic I eventually left for a street of cavernous, bullet-riddled industrial buildings that turned just as abruptly into winding, rather sweet lanes of row houses, then just as suddenly I was dodging truck traffic and pedaling under the catastrophically loud BQE..."
Just as Brooklyn is brought to life under Christensen's talented pen, so are her characters. At the center of THE ASTRAL, her sixth novel, is Harry Quirk, a fifty-something formerly successful poet who lives what he always thought was the perfect life with his wife Luz at the historic North Brooklyn apartment building called The Astral. Luz and Harry's two children have moved out, and even though they live nearby geographically, they might as well be worlds away from their upper-middle-class upbringing. Their daughter Karina is a lesbian and a radical freegan, living in a different Brooklyn neighborhood and feeding herself by dumpster diving. Their son Hector has become intimately involved in a secretive commune on Long Island that may or may not be a cult.
But Harry figures he can weather any storms with his children as long as he has Luz by his side. In a moment, though, he has lost even that, as Luz --- in typically dramatic fashion --- destroys his latest poetry book manuscript (a collection of sonnets about other women --- imaginary, Harry swears) and accuses him of having an affair with his decades-long best friend, Marion. She kicks him out and keeps him out, thanks to the ethically questionable therapist, Helen, who has counseled (or manipulated) Harry and Luz's entire circle of friends through years of infidelities, reconciliations, secrets and betrayals.
As a poet, Harry clings to traditional forms: the sonnet, the villanelle. In THE ASTRAL, he must learn how to redefine himself outside the established forms and structures that have defined his adult life. Is it possible for a middle-aged man to reach outside his established, insular social circle, to start over, to find independence and happiness? Harry is about to find out. Christensen's novel is simultaneously funny, elegiac and hopeful, and readers will find themselves cheering for lovable loser Harry and the promise of new beginnings --- for himself, for his family, for his genuine friends.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 20, 2011