Monday, April 11, 2011

"Three Stages of Amazement"

Carol Edgarian’s “Three Stages of Amazement” (Scribner, 2011), intrigued me because it focuses on the financial crash of the past three years and its effects even on many prosperous people, and because it is set in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live. Silicon Valley figures prominently, as do the wealthier neighborhoods in and around San Francisco. The upper middle class but spread-too-thin-financially main characters, Charlie and Lena, are very believable, as are some of the other vividly portrayed characters, particularly Lena’s extremely wealthy uncle Cal and his wife Ivy. We understand and sympathize with the sort of trap Charlie and Lena have fallen into: their ambition has led them to a place where they risk failing on a spectacular level. They are not simply ambitious, however; Charlie’s goal of inventing a robot that can perform surgery in poor countries, directed by a doctor elsewhere, is altruistic as well. We also sympathize with the couple’s deep sadness about the death of one twin girl at birth and the ongoing illness of the other infant twin girl, with the toll Charley’s long work hours and frequent travels take on the marriage, and with Lena’s emotional deprivation and frustration at being left to handle taking care of her two children (they also have a five year old son), including the pain and complications of having a chronically ill child, practically alone. One of the main themes of this novel is, in fact, marriage and its difficulties as well as joys. Charley’s and Lena’s marriage is a beautiful, loving, yet fragile and threatened relationship, realistically delineated. Something that bothered me as I was reading this novel, though, is that there is something unsettling, almost jittery, about it. There is not necessarily anything wrong with that; good literature is often unsettling. I imagine the author intended this impression. But I am not sure the rewards of the novel justify this sort of jumpiness. On the other hand, I read the novel quite quickly, indicating that I enjoyed it, so I won’t be too critical of it.

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