"The Sorrows of an American "
(Reviewed by Beth Chariton MAR 2, 2009)
“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things.”
“I think I should warn you, well, alert you to the fact that there may be some unsavory, yes, unpalatable, even disreputable aspects to what I intend to divulge.”
In The Sorrows of an American, by Siri Hustvedt, many personal and distasteful things are exposed that need to be discussed. Adult siblings Erik and Inga, mourning the recent loss of their father Lars Davidsen, discover a wealth of surprising information, about Lars and about themselves, past and present. Erik reads through his father’s journals, and learns of his father’s unrelenting hard work to give his family a stable life in Minnesota during the depression. Inga finds a letter indirectly linking Lars to a mysterious and unexplained death, then tries to connect with friends and relatives of her father’s past, hoping to find the answers.
Erik, a kind and mild mannered psychotherapist, struggles with the emotional extremes of his demanding patients, and tries to separate personal similarities from his professional diagnoses. He’s smitten and pre-occupied with his new tenant, the elusive Miranda, an artist proud of both her Jamaican heritage and her precocious and imaginative daughter, Eggy.
Miranda leads Erik through a push and pull friendship of sorts, while she deals with Eggy’s father, a maniacal photographer who stalks others with his camera, including Erik, claiming that he’s documenting human life. Eggy entertains Erik with unexpected visits and open conversations, keeping him busy and distracted from his divorced and childless life.
Inga is not only mourning the loss of her father, but the loss of her husband, Max, a famous novelist. A nagging journalist harasses Inga, claiming to know about her late husband’s secret life. Then his mistress steps forward, claiming to have love letters from Max that she’s willing to sell to support their love child. To complicate matters Inga becomes intimately involved with the man writing Max’s biography. Inga privately tries to protect her daughter, Sonia from a public media disaster by negotiating with each party involved with the fate of the letters. She’s eventually saved by the Walrus, or Burton, an old medical school chum of Erik’s who has secretly pined for Inga since then.
The differences and similarities in the lives of Inga and Erik, compared to that of their father, are woven through the story, pulling us along willingly. The more sorrows they uncover in their father’s past, the more they face and deal with in their own. Although their father’s simple life was a huge contrast to their own intellectual and upper crust Urban lives, this doesn’t protect them any more from sorrow, loss and disappointment. Foreign or American, educated or laborer, married or alone, no one is exempt from grief and the need to heal from it to move forward.
Siri Hustvedt has a way with language that can make one’s mouth water. However, in The Sorrows of an American, there are many things to keep track of: the journal entries of Lars, his family history, Erik and Inga’s lives and their friends, and the connections Inga makes along the way in her search for the truth about their father’s connection to the murder. There’s so much rich detail in the story that some parts may require re-reading, and tracking all the characters and time changes was confusing. Erik and Inga’s lives are extremely interesting and easy to get wrapped up in, which made it equally difficult to shift back and forth from past to present.
However, every sub plot is a jewel, keeping the reader guessing which side story will expose the much anticipated ending, which is surprising, anti climactic and fulfilling all the same. The story is an evocative one, multi faceted, complex and layered with thought provoking emotions about choice. Overall, an enjoyable read.
- Amazon readers rating: from 32 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Sorrows of an American at MacMillan
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Blindfold (1992)
- The Enchantment of Lily Dahl (1996)
- What I Loved (2003)
- The Sorrows of an American (2008)
- The Summer Without Men (2011)
- The Blazing World (March 2014)
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- Wikipedia page for Siri Hustvedt
- Identity Theory interview with Siri Hustvedt (2003)
- Bookslut interview with Siri Hustvedt (2008)
- More Intelligent Life conversation with Siri Hustvedt
- Smithereens review of A Plea for Eros
- Reading guide for The Sorrows of an American
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Blazing World
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About the Author:
Siri Hustvedt was born Northfield, Minnesota in 1955. Her father Lloyd Hustvedt was a professor of Scandinavian literature, and her mother Ester Vegan emigrated from Norway at the age of thirty. She holds a B.A. in history from St. Olaf College and a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University.
Hustvedt is a poet as well as novelist. Her short stories and essays have been published in various publications, including The Art of the Essay, The Best American Short Stories, The Paris Review, Yale Review and Modern Painters.
She is married to author Paul Auster and they live in Brooklyn, New York. Their daughter Sophie Auster, born in 1987, is a singer and actress.