by Jan Shapin
First sentence: “By the time Japan surrendered, Andy’s disappointment extended to just about everything.”
I’d tell you to buy it at your local independent bookstore, but you can’t. 😦
Review copy provided by the author.
It’s the 1930s, the height of the Depression, and everywhere people are struggling. To find work, to find a path, to find themselves. Andy’s in Washington, D.C. when he meets up with an old friend (she always liked him more than he liked her), Anna Mae, who, in the wake of her successful books about Communisum, has fallen in with a hot-shot defense lawyer. Andy falls for the lawyer’s wife, and they fall into an affair. One which goes on for a while, but is finally ended because Ilse isn’t willing to leave her husband and family. In the midst of all this, Anna Mae has her own trials: her father’s mind is going, and she needs to find a home for him, since she’s in Russia and neither of her brothers live nearby. On top of that, after years of reporting on Communism, Anna Mae finally has decided to take the plunge and join the party. Except the people in charge of the party in Seattle are petty and want revenge for the part they think Anna Mae has in all this. Ilse, over the years, is an impartial observer of all this, not really engaging — aside from her affair with Andy — and mostly just being a friend.
I was offered this book to review because I liked the author’s previous one, quite a bit. She seemed to have a way with making grand epics seem personable. But this three-pronged story didn’t do that for me. I struggled to connect with the characters, to find meaning in why these three disparate stories were connected. Aside from the obvious — that they knew each other, and knowing Anna Mae led Andy and Ilse together — there really wasn’t any reason for their stories to be told together.
Out of the three stories, though, I did find Anna Mae’s fascinating. The book I would have really loved to read is the one about Anna Mae, about her journey into reporting about Communism, the reasons behind her ending up in the Soviet Union, her tumultuous relationship with her father, how she and Andy met. In comparison, Andy and Ilse’s affair seems trite, a fleeting moment of passion without the depth that I think the characters wanted to believe they had.
Shapin’s writing is still spare and elegant; giving life and meaning to lives that aren’t that meaningful. It’s what kept me turning pages, even while I was frustrated with the direction of the story. I really did want to like this book; I like the author. But in the end, I just felt that it was flat. Which is disappointing.