Robin Taylor

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Readers familiar with Robert Hellenga's first novel, The Sixteen Pleasures, will hear its echoes in his second, ruminative book, The Fall of a Sparrow. Classical, Italian, Persian, and American cultures are superimposed on one another much like the palimpsest of history that Alan "Woody" Woodhull, the protagonist, sees in Rome's skyline. The layers give the present structure and depth and make it resonate with meaning. Hellenga again explores the myriad subtle technical details of the creation and preservation of beauty, this time through the crafts of American blues guitar, traditional Italian cooking, and classical literature.

The principal narrative of The Fall of a Sparrow centers on a terrorist bombing that occurred in Bologna in August, 1980, killing the oldest of Woody's three daughters. The novel begins seven years after the strage, as the terrorists are finally to go on trial in Bologna, with a mood not of crisis and trauma but of reflection and old grief. The first person narration of Woody's middle daughter Sara opens, closes, and bisects Woody's story, a framing device reminiscent of a Greek chorus, putting a thoughtful distance between the reader and Woody, reminding the reader to listen for the novel's moral lessons. Woody has continued with his life as a classics professor at a small Midwestern liberal arts college after the death of his daughter Cookie, but he has not learned to accept the loss. When college politics force him out of his professorship, Woody leaves for Italy to attend the terrorists' trial both as journalist and as the father of a victim. He plays his guitar for money, enters into a relationship with an Italian restaurant owner, and before he even realizes it, has begun a new life.

Hellenga's book is about love, particularly about Woody's love for the women in his life-his ex-wife, three daughters, several successive lovers and each is a wonderful mystery to him. They are emblems of love and life, and the quiet tone of the novel belies the passion with which Woody loves them and believes they save his life. Physical love is his religion; it is a celebration in the face of death; it is earthly and natural, yet spiritual and transcendent; it defies all moral codes; and it cannot be governed or directed by mortals. Even the bitter, misguided dean of Woody's college and the woman who planted the bomb that killed his daughter are like fallen angels, and he stubbornly believes they are better than men. Though they will not let him, he wants to love them, but doesn't understand how.

All of Hellenga's characters, men and women, seek closure, most often in the form of forgiveness. They seek it for themselves, those who have hurt them, and the God who has brought them anguish and despair. Though they hurt people around them, they are not villains, just human. Hellenga shows the reader that passionate love, though it can violate someone's sense of honor, or cause pain, is unavoidable, and so is the forgiveness that follows.

Reviewed by Robin Taylor.

Readers familiar with Robert Hellenga's first novel, The Sixteen Pleasures, will hear its echoes in his second, ruminative book, The Fall of a Sparrow. Classical, Italian, Persian, and American cultures are superimposed on one another much like the palimpsest of history that Alan "Woody" Woodhull, the protagonist, sees in Rome's skyline. The layers give the […]
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"I am American now," Sagesse LaBasse declares at the opening of Claire Messud's second novel, The Last Life. Readers will be thankful that she doesn't tell her story American style. In contrast to a nation full of people who compete to tell their most shocking secrets in front of a studio audience, Sagesse delivers her narrative in a refreshingly quiet and understated voice.

Her story begins when she is a teenager spending long, lazy summers on the grounds of her grandfather's hotel by the sea in France. These chapters will effortlessly transport you to the Mediterranean coast, where the slow, sunny ease is deceptive. Disturbing events will raise difficult questions about culture, colonialism, family, selfishness, and sacrifice. Yet despite the weight and complexity of these issues, Sagesse is unflinching in her analysis of the people around her. Most impressive, she examines her own actions at least as seriously as she does those of her friends, parents, and grandparents. Only Sagesse's brother gets an uncritical treatment from her. Etienne Parfait was deprived of oxygen at birth, damaging his brain. He is silent, wheelchair-bound. At times Etienne seems joyful and at others troubled or distraught. He serves as a mirror for Sagesse and a vessel for her family's emotions. Tenderly, without caricaturing him, Messud uses Etienne as a foil for her characters, to bring out their subtler traits.

"I am American now," Sagesse repeats like a mantra. Her insistence highlights her uncertainty. Her mother is an American who moved to France for love, and Sagesse's paternal ancestors emigrated from France to Algeria and returned to France generations later. Sagesse will follow in her parents' footsteps by leaving her home country. Messud characterizes America, without judging it, as a place where one can reinvent her history as she pleases, or erase it all together; it is all future and no past.

Robin Taylor is a web designer and technical writer for an IT magazine.

"I am American now," Sagesse LaBasse declares at the opening of Claire Messud's second novel, The Last Life. Readers will be thankful that she doesn't tell her story American style. In contrast to a nation full of people who compete to tell their most shocking secrets in front of a studio audience, Sagesse delivers her […]

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