by Robin SmithOctober, 2000
Disobedience. Such a quaint word in this world where children "make bad choices" rather than disobey. But, who is disobeying in Jane Hamilton's fourth novel? Is it mom, Beth Shaw, who is having an affair? Dad, the careful Kevin, who is too involved with school politics and teaching to fulfill his energetic wife's needs? Or is it 13-year-old Elvira, with her eccentric behavior that drains the family of emotional energy? Or, perhaps it is the narrator, 17-year-old Henry who reads, prints, and ponders his mother's private confessional e-mails? Such a rich cauldron.
Henry, bred in the home of socialists and tempered in the fire of eastern college and film school, is shown at age 27, looking back on the events that rocked his family 10 years earlier. His ironic tone and focus move like a handheld camera to each member of his family, but nowhere is his focus clearer than when he is looking at his mother, Beth. To the world and her family, Beth is the perfect earth-mother intellectual. Her passion is her music, and her music is what allows her to meet Richard, a violinmaker, a train ride away in Wisconsin. Henry stumbles upon the evidence of his mother's affair while working on the family computer.
This novel has many appealing aspects: Henry's own first sexual experiences juxtaposed with his mother's affair, his platonic friendship with a classmate, the slices of New England music camp life, the inside look at Civil War reenactments, the torment Beth feels as she becomes the unlikely adulteress, the quiet patience of Kevin Shaw, and the clever insights Henry shares about human relationships. Henry Shaw's voice is sure and true. His sense of humor saves his family's experience from being just another story of emotional crisis. His filmmaker's eye allows us to see others as he saw and think as he thought. His honesty even extends to his treatment of his part in the family drama. Stories told in the first person often present the narrator's point of view as the truth. Hamilton, author of the Oprah selection ,A Map of the World, does something much more interesting and daring: she allows the narrator to doubt himself.
Henry's humanity and humor allow us to understand and accept the disobediences of those he loves.
Robin Smith teaches school in Nashville.