Book review: A reckoning in winter

  • Article by: MARK ATHITAKIS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 11, 2012 - 3:15 PM

This story of three middle-aged couples concentrates on how hidden concerns can disconnect us from those closest to us.

"The Light of Amsterdam," by David Park, shows how hidden concerns can disconnect us from those closest to us.

The rules for the midlife-crisis novel are simple: The worse it is for the characters, the better it is for readers. We keep coming back to novels like Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road," despite its brutality, because its vision of troubled relationships is so clear-eyed and honest. That kind of story -- call it the anti-marriage plot -- is the drivetrain of plenty of genre fiction, and Jonathan Franzen and Richard Ford have used it to merge literary ambition and commercial appeal.

So David Park's seventh novel, "The Light of Amsterdam" (Bloomsbury, 371 pages, $26), appears promising. The story alternates between three middle-aged people spending a December weekend in the Dutch capital, eager to temporarily forget their problems back home in Ireland. Alan is a recent divorcee whose job as an art teacher is in jeopardy; Karen is a cleaning woman in a nursing home anxiously accompanying her daughter on her bachelorette's weekend; Marion runs a nursery with her husband, whom she feels incapable of satisfying. All feel like failures at love, which, Alan thinks, "made your pretense of calm control a hopeless lie."

The novel concentrates on how hidden concerns disconnect us even from those closest to us: Park pits Alan against his sullen, untalkative teenage son, Karen against her flighty, self-obsessed daughter, and Marion against her cryptic husband. We know Alan and Karen's minds, but not the children's, which lets us better inhabit their frustration. And Park is also wise to the subtle class divisions among the characters. Alan and Karen admire the same Vermeer painting, but can't find the proper footing to talk about it the same way. He hears earnest ignorance from her; she hears condescension from him.

It's a well-turned scene. But is there any way a short-circuited chat about a painting can become the stuff of a great midlife-crisis novel? Park has largely sacrificed the drama such a story requires in favor of layers of observant but static prose. His sentences are expansive bordering on gassy, detailed to the point of irrelevance: passing characters like restaurant cooks and concert roadies are described with needless precision, while the leads don't move far emotionally from where they were when they first touched down at Schiphol airport.

This is disappointing, because Park has so thoughtfully fitted his characters with the essential parts of emotional breakdown and recovery. Marion, for instance, is so painfully uncertain of her self-worth that she tries to "gift" her husband with a prostitute, yet the resolution of her folly is soft-focused and flat. Park expertly endows his characters with an awareness of their shortcomings: Alan realizes "he let self-pity snag and snarl him into a sort of paralysis." A novel like this, though, demands more movement.

Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C.

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