Brian Morton

(Jump down to read a review of A Window Across the River)

"Breakable You"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 5, 2007)

"During these weeks, as he felt himself changing, Samir sometimes observed the process with a sort of detached curiosity.  He was curious about what he would become.  Curious to find out whether his new self was going to be his old self reclaimed, as if he'd left it in storage for a few years, or whether it was going to be something entirely unknown."

Breakable You by Brian Morton

A sensitive exploration of who we are and how we love, Breakable You focuses on three members of a family who no longer understand (or in most cases, care) what it means to be a family.  All have made independent choices in their pursuit of life and career, and they now have little in common and few avenues of communication.  As Morton, a particularly intimate writer, reveals his characters' hopes, fears, strengths, and weaknesses, the reader comes to understand them and, in most cases, empathize with them.

Adam Weller, a sixty-year-old author who has achieved moderate success, has divorced his wife of thirty years to pursue a twenty-something beauty while trying to write a book which he hopes will restart his literary career.  The least likable character in the novel, Adam is so self-involved and has such a huge ego, that there seems to be little hope for his self-enlightenment.  His eventual publication of "the best book of his career" is based on a shocking dishonesty, which alienates the reader and robs Adam of sympathy. 

Adam's former wife Eleanor, a psychologist and "earth mother," gave up her own goals to help her husband pursue his.  Now alone, she is trying to put her life back together, and she is not sure if she needs counseling herself to deal with her emotional difficulties.  Having reconnected with a love from the distant past, she is not sure she is ready for a new relationship.  Their daughter Maud, a Ph.D. candidate who is still trying to finish her dissertation in philosophy, has been hospitalized twice for emotional breakdowns and has only a fragile grasp on everyday reality.  Now engaged in a passionate affair with Samir, Maud believes she has found love.  Samir, however, has not recovered from the long illness and death of his three-year-old daughter, and he is having difficulty opening himself to new life. 

Alternating points of view among his characters—serious thinkers all, Morton explores the universal subjects of love, life, and death, but his characters are unique, and their interpretations of how one develops a life, what love means, the responsibilities it entails, and how one copes with death and dying are also unique. Maud, the philosopher, "needed philosophers like Seneca and Schopenhauer, thinkers who remind us all that life ends in nothingness, and that there is no God…to confer meaning on our lives from the outside.  She needed them to remind her that the meanings we assign to our lives are the only meanings they will finally have."  Samir, falling in love with Maud, begins to discover that "the more completely he gave himself to life, the more [his dead child's] memory would fade," and he is not sure he wants that to happen.

Eleanor, in her unhappiness, fears that she "may have simply forgotten how to welcome the good things," but she discovers that "She wasn't a woman in the process of  'reinventing' herself.  She was a mother."  Adam, after rationalizing his unwillingness to help Maud when she needed him, believes that "if you do what you want to do, as long as you are not actually going out of your way to be cruel, you are acting within the moral law."  Ironically, he sees his role as that of "a model for Maud to aspire to." 

As the Wellers try to work their way through their problems, they, like the rest of us, discover that their pasts impinge on the present, and their emotions and desires affect their ability to think.  Their problem-solving abilities range from Adam's ruthless pragmatism, to Maud's paralyzing philosophical introspection, and happiness, we discover, is not a function of how thoughtful, or honest, or unselfish we are.  Morton keeps the action moving smartly as his characters explore their inner lives and their real world problems.  His imagery allows the reader to form pictures of their physical world while he also explores their intellectual and emotional worlds.  A fine character novel dealing with important themes.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 9 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Breakable You at Harcourt Books

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"A Window Across the River"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 7, 2004)

"When she wrote, she became a cannibal, feeding off the lives of acquaintances, friends, and loved ones. The only time she felt excited as a writer was when she was writing about people she knew, and, almost always, she gravitated to their secrets and their frailties. The things they feared about themselves, the things they hoped no one would ever notice—Nora had a gift for divining them."

A Window Across the River by Brian Morton

Nora Howard, a thirty-five-year-old writer, is almost always in the grip of a creative fever, but she has one problem. Though she always starts out intending to write fiction, she soon finds that her empathy for the problems and misfortunes of her friends, relatives, and acquaintances seeps into her stories, and before long she is reading into a real person's mind and divining thoughts, motivations, and emotions. Her use of these observations in her stories leads to stunning realism, but it also leads to hurt feelings as the people around her feel permanently betrayed, their privacy invaded. "It was as if she was a medium, with no control over the voices that spoke to her."

In the midst of a failed relationship, Nora, at 3:00 a.m., calls Isaac Mitchell, an art photographer and former lover who was a major part of her life five years before. Though she does not speak to him when he answers, he knows immediately who it is. "I recognized your silence," he says. Isaac, still unmarried at forty, has "made his way in life through a series of nervous breakdowns" and health problems, and he is hesitant about resuming the past with Nora, though he dearly loves her. His early promise as a creative artist has not borne fruit in the way he has hoped, and he is now working as deputy photo editor for a newspaper, a job that he enjoys, though he fears that he is no longer the "moral touchstone" that Nora thought he was five years before.

In alternating chapters, Nora and Isaac tell their stories, past and present. Filled with the details of ordinary life and a great deal of humor, we see Nora as a "Florence Nightingale" personality attempting to become a "Virginia Woolf." The story of her "writing life" becomes more complex when her aunt Billie, her only remaining relative, becomes seriously ill, and Nora must make sacrifices. Meanwhile, Isaac, a mentor to a young photographer, is trying to put together a new show of art photos. As his protégé Renee finds success, however, he feels himself "losing his plumage." Though he knows Renee may be a genius, he can't help resenting the fact that for her, photography seems far easier and more natural than it does for him.

Author Brian Morton explores the creative life in detail here, showing how for Isaac, "photography had [once] taken the place of prayer in his life." For Nora, "it was the best way she had ever found to express her fascination with life, her quarrels with life, her questions." The sacrifices and compromises one makes for art are nicely realized, and when Nora finds herself beginning a story about a character named, symbolically, "Gabriel," a story she is submitting to an Atlantic magazine contest, the stage is set for a confrontation with Isaac. As Billie's illness becomes more serious, the themes broaden and lead to additional questions, not only about the creative life, but about how we find personal satisfaction and how we want to be remembered.

Homely details and dialogue give insights into the relationships of the characters (and their everyday miscommunications), while Morton's unpretentious style keeps the reader focused on the here and now. The realism is leavened with irony and humor (a scene in which Nora uses the Heimlich maneuver on a dog, only to be bitten when it revives, is hilarious), at the same time that the author makes important points about who we are, as opposed to who we want to be. Building small events with small details, Morton keeps his novel focused, showing real people acting as real people do and, like real people, learning or not learning from their experiences.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 14 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from A Window Across the River at Harcourt Books

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About the Author:

Brian MortonBrian Morton was the executive editor of Dissent magazine from 1995-1999. He has taught creative writing at New York University and Sarah Lawrence College, of which he is a graduate.

The Dylanist, called "a first novel of unusual merit" by The New York Review of Books. His second novel, Starting out in the Evening, received the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Koret Jewish Book Award for Fiction, and the Guggenheim Foundation Award. It was also a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

He and his wife and two children live in New York City. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014