This was another novel that I came across on one of those lists of best LGBT novels for the year. It is about a family in New York during the sixties and seventies. The father, Jonathan Ascher, is gay (although doesn’t believe in such labels) and married to a woman who more or less knows about his philandering. They have a son together, Mickey, whose role in the novel steadily becomes more and more important.
The novel has two narrators. The first is the wife of Jonathan, Martha. The second is Jonathan himself, through his diaries which Martha reads and reacts to throughout the novel. Jonathan was a well known radical writer in his day, and a researcher wants to write a book about him. However, Martha wants to know what John wrote in his diaries before she agrees to it. This is the basic premise of the novel. I should add that the title of the novel comes from a book which Jonathan wrote that made him famous, although he and it are now mostly forgotten.
Mark Merlis wrote a very readable book. Sometimes when I hear about books where the husband is closeted I feel as if I’ve read this trope a hundred times. Usually by the end the wife finds out and the family gets torn apart. However, this book, although it starts with that classic premise, ends up doing something very different. It was a good choice by the author to include two voices, and to have the wife reacting to the diary entries as she reads them. Sometimes there is not much difference in the narrative voices of the husband and wife, but that does not detract from the story. After all they are both intelligent characters who lived together for a long time, so it is no surprise that they may sound like one another.
I found the story very readable, and at times the book was difficult to put down. This wasn’t because the book was particularly exciting, indeed you know some of how it will end after the first chapter. It was because I wanted to find out more about these characters. I wanted to read more of Jonathan’s diary, and Martha’s reaction to each disclosure about the husband she knew for a long time, but didn’t know him as well as she thought.
Another interesting part to this novel is the historical setting. It was before the gay rights movement really took off, before the AIDS epidemic, but right in the middle of the Vietnam War and student radicalism. Although it is a gay themed novel, it is in many ways more of a family drama. It reminded me in some ways of Stoner by John Edward Williams. Both are novels that shy away from big themes and high stakes, but at the same time the understated concentration on a small family unit is captivating. Also, through the concentration on a small unit, you get to see how the larger forces in the world interact with this small and complex family unit. It is not a long novel, and can be read in a few days. I recommend it.