The phrase subtle bodies refers to the part of ourselves that is not our physical form but rather our consciousness, spirit, the essence of what makes us who we are. In his third and long-awaited novel of the same name, Norman Rush explores what happens when a group of college friends reunite for the funeral of one of their own, forcing them to examine the core experiences of who they once were and how their lives have changed over the ensuing decades.

Subtle Bodies takes place just before the outbreak of the second Iraq War and is set in motion by the death of Douglas, the charismatic ringleader of a group of college friends who continued to live together for several years after graduation. Doug’s unique brand of humor unified the group, and their communal life was a kind of highly self-conscious performance art filled with private jokes and even a secret language.

Four of the now 40-something men are summoned to Doug’s Hudson River Valley estate to take part in an elaborate memorial service. Once a seamless community of acolytes following the direction of their self-appointed leader, they now struggle to find ways to connect. Ned, who is planning the coordination of a large antiwar demonstration in California, comes to New York begrudgingly, questioning the very significance of the group. Can what seemed essential at age 20 still be relevant at age 40?  His wife, Nina, follows him in hot pursuit. After years of childlessness, the couple is at a critical point in trying to get pregnant, and she is reluctant to let Ned go, even for a weekend. 

Subtle Bodies is told by Ned and Nina in alternating chapters, with Ned struggling to understand just what made Doug so influential and Nina’s wisecracking irreverence for her husband’s mentor. In fact, it is her tart commentary and the way she gently pokes fun at what the group once held sacred that give this novel much of its quirky charm.

Subtle Bodies is the first of Rush’s novels not set in Africa. It is also shorter by half than either Mating or Mortals. But Rush’s sharp observations of human foibles and his singular take on marriage and sex will be familiar to fans of his earlier work. A concise, humorous novel about what we discard and what we keep as we age, Subtle Bodies will both delight and make you think.

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