Jane Hamilton writes lovely, thoughtful books about trying to take life as you find it, dealing realistically with harsh, immutable truths and surviving in spite of them. In her first novel, The Book of Ruth, the main character learns to transcend the dismal future that her abusive family history portended. In A Map of the World, a moment of neglect results in the death of a child, and the woman who is responsible must learn to live with herself.
In The Short History of a Prince, Walter McCloud is faced with a double whammy: the death of his brother and his own homosexuality. Walter is 15 years old on the day this novel starts, the day his older brother's illness is discovered. Daniel will die of it about a year later. And Walter is agonizingly aware that Daniel is the heterosexual son, the one who'd have produced grandchildren for his parents, the one who'd have stayed close to home. Home where to find it, how to get there is and remains the big issue in Walter's life. Home is where Walter imagines he might achieve a sense of belonging whether it is in his parents' comfortable Midwestern suburb or at his mother's family's country estate at Lake Margaret, passed down through several generations. But even at 15, Walter knows he is never going to fit in, nor is he likely to realize his dream of becoming a ballet dancer. Passion and drive, intention and ambition, hope and hard work are not enough. There are some truths like death, lack of innate talent, and homosexuality that resist all attempts at manipulation, and Walter confronts several of them.
Neglected by his grieving parents, brokenhearted over his first love affair, humiliated, guilt-ridden, Walter leaves for New York, where he goes to college, finds a “career” working in a dollhouse store, and attempts to satisfy himself with a series of short-lived sexual relationships.
But 23 years later, Walter, now in his mid-thirties, is forced to concede it isn't working for him. “A friend had dragged him to the Y, to a seminar on taking charge and living in the moment, but the theories and techniques were suspect, Walter thought. The moment, after all, was a flash in the pan. Life, he knew, had meaning and was fully possessed only as it was remembered and reshaped.” Almost reluctantly, Walter begins to reflect and make changes.
He gets his teaching certification, and accepts a job back in the Midwest, where, he knows, his sexual orientation will have to stay hidden. He attempts to forge a relationship with his much younger sister, born after Daniel's death, who, with her tract house, car-salesman husband, and generic toddler, seems to him frighteningly conventional. He learns to teach literature to mostly uninspired adolescents, and he makes awkward stabs at finding a significant other.
Through all of this, he is bolstered by only a few reassuring constants: his friend Susan, with whom he'd studied ballet; his parents; and the house at Lake Margaret, which is in danger of being sold off. In fact, it is in dealing with that looming catastrophe that Walter starts to pull himself together, to begin making decisions about what has value and what does not.
Not a lot happens in this novel, and often what does happen seems to happen offstage. But somehow Walter's dilemma, his struggle to find a place for himself in the world, is rendered so vividly that by the last sentence, in which is expressed the smallest, most fragile tendril of hope, an entire world of possibility has been envisioned, and the hope belongs not only to Walter but also, passionately, to the reader.
Reviewed by Nan Goldberg.