The illegitimate son of an au pair and her employer rises to great heights, which proves the boy's undoing.
In the summer of 1962, English au pair Diane Burroughs finds work in the home of Walter Cousins, an actuary whose wife, Lydia, is hospitalized after a nervous breakdown. Diane is young, but that doesn't stop Walter from lusting after her. It takes only a few uncomfortable pages for the story to progress as one might expect, with 34-year-old Walter ogling and flirting, listening to his young daughter talk to him while she clutched "the au pair's stellar thighs."
Nothing will stop the forward movement of fate, however, not even Diane's admission that she is not 18 years old, but 15, a fact with which Walter seems barely conflicted. When Lydia returns from her hospitalization, Diane's duties as au pair cease, but by then she is pregnant. Walter and Diane hide the pregnancy and arrange for the baby to be adopted.
Throughout the novel, the point of view changes hands, and so when Diane picks up the story line, one hopes she will redeem it. She does not. Instead, she proves to be every bit as despicable as Walter. She cancels the arranged adoption, not for the love of her son, but because it seems a convenient way to blackmail Walter for the next 18 years. She travels from Washington down to Portland, Ore., and leaves her son on a doorstep. "It was bitter-hard. But driving off, she bucked up within minutes. ... Two days later, on a sunny morning, standing beside her open post-office box, she tore open Walter's first installment with giddy pleasure."
The rest of the novel propels Walter, Diane and their son, Ed King, forward over 50 years, watching as each of them lives out a fate in what the publisher openly bills as "a thrilling reimagining of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex."
There are fast cars and cocaine, plastic surgery and family secrets. Ultimately, Ed, obsessed with algorithms, creates Pythia, a wildly successful Web search engine that earns him his eventual title as the "King of Search," as well as billions of dollars, a fleet of planes and homes around the world. His empire, of course, leads to his undoing.
Guterson attempts to tell an epic tale, but an epic novel needs more than just a few decades to pass between plot points -- it needs characters with complexity and a story that is compelling. Readers will be disappointed on both counts. His is a very literal retelling of the Oedipus story, in which not one of the characters is likable, let alone relatable -- none is fantastically wicked or deliciously acerbic -- and in the end, the reader is left with a surprisingly flat and unoriginal story.
Kim Schmidt is a critic who lives in Illinois.