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Is This Book Worth Getting?

A no-frills guide to the spring fiction shelf.

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The Line
By Olga Grushin
A Marian Wood Book/G. P. Putnam’s Sons; $25.95
For a book about waiting in line for a year, Olga Grushin’s second novel contains an awful lot of running around. In a dreary Eastern-bloc city (maybe mid-century Leningrad) several decades after an unspecified revolution known as The Change, the middle-aged musician Sergei; his schoolteacher wife, Anna; their son, Alexander; and Anna’s mother, Maya, race to and from a line at a kiosk. There they wait for tickets to a concert by the conductor Igor Selinsky (a stand-in, Grushin writes in a postscript, for Stravinsky). In between shifts, they chase that elusive experience—novelty—that even those of us in freer cultures crave. Strange love; strange music; exotic climes; repressed memories rediscovered and embellished. Yet the members of this family often fail to recognize one another in the street. They suffer from the banal malaise of Failing to Connect. As in Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov, the prose soars, as accomplished as that of any native English speaker (Grushin grew up in Moscow and Prague). But in contrast to that precise and tragic debut, The Line is hampered on one hand by coy evasions (the most absurd events here are based on fact, so why bother?) and on the other by a sentimental ending that papers over the rough spots. What we end up with is American Beauty for Sovietologists—worth a look but not a wait in line.

VERDICT: WAIT FOR THE PAPERBACK


The Invisible Bridge
By Julie Orringer
Alfred A. Knopf; May 4; $26.95
At the start of this novel—Orringer’s first—it’s 1937, and Andras Lévi, blocked by anti-Jewish quotas from studying in his native Hungary, leaves for the École Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris. Andras falls in storybook love with a ballet teacher, shadowed by the metastasizing presence of the Nazis. When the couple returns to Hungary, in 1939, the threat becomes malignant: Andras is conscripted into the Hungarian army’s forced-labor service, and the gentler will-they-or-won’t-they direction of the novel’s first half is subsumed by a more pressing question: Will Andras see his loved ones again? At more than 600 pages, this is a Sweeping Historical Saga, bathed in sepia, and some central characters barely avoid that trap of Holocaust fiction—the one-dimensional noble victims. But Orringer avoids bathos and has a gift for re-creating distant times and places: a Paris suffused with the scent of paprikás and the sounds of American jazz, the camaraderies and cruelties of the work camps. The ticking clock of history keeps it urgent and moving forward, and the result is, against all odds, a Holocaust page-turner.

VERDICT: BUY IT


All That Follows
By Jim Crace
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; April 20; $25.95
Leonard Lessing is a jazz saxophonist who can’t let loose unless he’s onstage with his horn. Back in the aughts, he tried to draw strength from a lefty crowd, falling in with a wack-job activist and his lovely girlfriend. It ended badly when, at a key Bush-era moment, his inherent timidity got the better of him. Now it’s 2024, and he’s coming apart literally (bad shoulder) and emotionally (bone-dry marriage). The sociopath has bobbed up again, taking a houseful of hostages near Lessing’s suburban British home. What’s the right thing to do: Squeal? Subvert? Ignore? Figuring that out and finding the impetus to carry it out is the central conflict of All That Follows, and it’s an unusual book—a literary novel with some actual action, a little like T. C. Boyle with less gore dripping from the writer’s talons. Leonard is a thought-provoking, complex stand-in for those of us who’ll march in a protest of thousands but don’t dare instigate a solo provocation. If anything, the book could use a bit more bloodlust here and there: It ends on a surprisingly life-affirming note, in a way that suggests that the author, like Leonard, is looking for a happy ending that doesn’t compromise his principles.

VERDICT: BUY IT


Parrot and Olivier in America
By Peter Carey
Alfred A. Knopf; April 20; $26.95
Peter Carey’s eleventh novel cranks its energy, like Don Quixote, out of the friction between two antipodal characters. Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont is a nineteenth-century French aristocrat who suffers from asthma, allergies, myopia, and nosebleeds. His servant, John “Parrot” Larrit, is a rough-and-tumble Englishman whose story seems lifted straight out of Dickens. (He was rescued, as an orphan, by a one-armed counterfeiter.) Carey allows these vastly different men to take turns narrating, and that counterpoint generates all kinds of comedy. They trade insults (Parrot calls Olivier “Lord Migraine,” “Lord Pintle d’Pantedly,” and “Lord Snobsduck”; Olivier calls Parrot an “impossible villain”) and often give differing accounts of events. In 1830, they embark on a trip to America, Olivier to write a De Tocquevillesque report on the prison system and Parrot to serve as his secretary. They struggle to embrace the land of “savages and bears and presidents who would not wear wigs” until, of course, Olivier falls in love. The plot is a bit ragtag; Carey is constantly sending us on new journeys, introducing fresh clusters of minor characters, or dragging us into backstory. But it’s hard to fault him, since every detour hums with comic adventure: surprise reunions, a house full of secret passageways, some improbable gunplay, a miraculous cure for smallpox. What holds it all together is the relationship between Parrot and Olivier, who vault over chasms of history and class and become tentative friends. The messy variety of human experience, then, is exactly the point. As Parrot says, “It is a wonder how many lives a man can hold within his skin.”

VERDICT: BUY IT


The Escape
By Adam Thirlwell
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $25
Adam Thirlwell, whose first novel, Politics, pushed him into the young-British-literary-writer firmament back in 2003, and whose second book, some critics felt, did its damnedest to dislodge him from that spot, is now back with The Escape: the story of Raphael Haffner, a randy septuagenarian who’s had great success as a banker and some notable domestic failings. Basically, his heirs think he’s a self-involved prick. Partly to prove them wrong, he’s gone to an Eastern European spa town to reclaim his late wife’s family villa, which was appropriated by the Nazis and then the Communists. While there, he tangles, erotically and bureaucratically, with a yoga instructor, a masseur-fixer, and an age-appropriate but very much wronged frau. His horny grandson, Benji, drops in from Israel. Zionism enters the conversation. As do cricket and the lives of debauched emperors. (Haffner is taken with the latter two, less so the first.)

It’s Bellow/Roth/Updike up on a mountain, and the novel, which cites a lot of sources (Bellow, but also Tupac Shakur), is amusing—“bohemia, when it came to Haffner, always came in such strangely bourgeois costumes: a mustached man in a tracksuit, say, surrounded by candles.” But it’s also narrated mostly unobtrusively by a friend of Haffner’s whose pronouncements about life tend toward the following: “For desire may involve possession. But also it might mean the opposite desire: to be possessed.” The advice to any aging libertines out there would be to

VERDICT: BUY IT. The more sensible thing to say is: If you’ve got a spa holiday planned for next year, WAIT FOR THE PAPERBACK


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