Leavitt's ungainly sixth novel appears to be an amalgam of
transposed autobiography, literary in-talk, and the emphasis on
family dynamics that distinguished his early work (The Lost
Language of Cranes, 1986, etc.). His complicated story is narrated
in retrospect by Judith "Denny" Denham, secretary and mistress to
Ernest Wright, a psychology prof at California's Wellspring
University, and captive piano-playing partner and exploited
houseguest of Ernest's intense, busy wife Nancy. The early chapters
feature solid and sometimes amusing writing about college life and
how it influences families. But the tale slackens when its
serpentine plot-initiated by a volatile 1969 Thanksgiving dinner
hosted by the Wrights-kicks off. Tensions surround the Wrights:
eldest son Mark flees the draft by moving to Canada; teenaged
daughter Daphne sleeps with an older man; Nancy presumably senses
Ernest's adulteries (but neither confides in nor confronts Denny).
And 15-year-old Ben Wright, a fledgling poet burdened with multiple
insecurities, attracts the possibly improper attention of Nancy's
old friend Anne Armstrong, while playing disciple to Anne's
undisciplined husband Jonah Boyd, a novelist who has the irrational
habit of continually losing notebooks containing his
work-in-progress. One such loss mars that Thanksgiving Day, and
resonates long afterward-as we learn from Denny's exhaustive
account of her reunion (after Nancy has died and Ernest been
murdered) with Ben (now himself a successful novelist) and Ben's
disclosure of secrets he has kept since 1969. This all feels like
much ado about rather little, and none of it is especially
believable. It's hard not to infer a correlation between this
book's plot and the notoriety that surrounded Leavitt's third
novel, While England Sleeps (1993), allegedly partially
plagiarized. That's about as interesting as Jonah Boyd ever gets.
One hopes the gifted Leavitt is capable of much better work. But
the clock is ticking. (Kirkus Reviews)
It's 1969, and Judith "Denny" Denham has just begun an affair with
Dr. Ernest Wright, a psychology professor at Wellspring University,
who just happens to be her boss. But her position in the Wright
household is not merely as a mistress. Ernest's wife, Nancy, has
taken Denny under her wing as a four-hand piano partner and general
confidante, although Denny can never seem to measure up to Anne,
Nancy's best friend from back East, either in piano playing skill
or general grace. Ernest's eldest son has fled over the Canadian
border to escape the draft, while his only daughter has embarked on
a secret affair with her father's protege. The remaining son, Ben,
is fifteen, and as delicate and insufferable as only a
poetry-writing fifteen-year-old can be. That autumn, Denny crosses
the freeway that separates Wellspring from its less affluent mirror
image, Springwell, to spend Thanksgiving with the Wrights and their
assortment of strays, including two honored guests: the eagerly
anticipated Anne and Anne's new husband, the novelist Jonah Boyd.
The chain of events set in motion that Thanksgiving will change the
lives of everyone involved in ways that none can imagine, and that
won't become clear for decades to come. Hilarious and scorching, by
turns tender and tendentious, David Leavitt's first novel in four
years is a tribute to the power of home, the lure of success, the
mystery of originality, and, above all, the sisterhood of
secretaries. Flawlessly crafted and full of surprises, it is the
perfect showcase for this author's considerable skills.
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