In this issue:
Books: By George is an engaging and sometimes confusing little novel. That’s not surprising, inasmuch as it is told in the voice of a ventriloquist’s dummy named George. If you love romances where everyone talks at length (o, endlessly) about feelings, The Choice is the book for you.
And Consider Books about Health and Retirement Concerns: The Seven-Step Program for a Younger, Healthier You is written by the medical director of the Canyon Ranch Health Resorts; My Next Phase may help some people to clear their vision and organize productive retirements; Good Calories, Bad Calories startling conclusion reads: “Dietary fat, whether saturated or not is not a cause of obesity, heart disease, or any other chronic disease."
By Wesley Stace, © 2007
Published by Little, Brown & Co.; hardback, 378 pp
By George is an engaging and sometimes confusing little novel. That’s not surprising, inasmuch as it is told in the voice of a ventriloquist’s dummy named George. There are, in fact, two Georges in this book, and at times it takes a moment to orient oneself as to which George is meant, George the dummy or George the real boy, scion of a famous British theatrical family named Fisher. This confusion of Georges is a conjurer’s trick that distracts, just as a ventriloquist’s mis-direction conceals the motion of his lips, while the author delivers a very complex, multi-generational search-for-the-self tale.
The founder of the family, long-dead ventriloquist Vox Knight, worked without a dummy and astounded audiences by seeming to throw his voice. There was even a book written about his art. His daughter, known to the public as Echo Endor (and to the family as Edie) was also a ventriloquist, who worked with an uppity dummy named Narcissus. She in turn produced a son, Joe, whom she determined should follow the family trade. For his birthday, Edie had a dummy made for him by the famous Romando family. She imperiously declared that the dummy be named Pipsqueak, but Joe resisted, calling him, simply, George. It is this “boy” (as they call the dummy) who narrates the book.
Echo/Edie was a formidable matriarch, and dominated Joe’s life even to the point of pushing him into a loveless marriage to a remarkable woman named Queenie. Their daughter, Frankie, cast aside the ventriloquists’ trade and became a famous actress. Which brings us to her son, George, named after his grandfather’s dummy. It is this real George who is the focus of the book.
It’s refreshing to find a book about a theatre family that portrays the members as real people with real problems, not just a bunch of self-centered neurotics. There are plenty of neuroses in this lot, but as in all families, the oddities are fairly well parceled-out amongst the various members.
Aside from being a dead-on portrait of the life of a theatrical family with all its backstage details and competing personalities, By George is a fascinating yarn. Young George, who is eleven and being sent away to boarding school as the book begins, gradually uncovers his family’s secrets, which involve his grandparents as well as his parents, and his own place in the scheme of things. As a coming-of-age story, By George is both truthful and touching.It is a strange and delightful novel, and while at times it wanders pretty far afield, I found it well worth the read.
By Nicholas Sparks, © 2007
Published by Grand Central Publishing; hardback, 272 pp
How far should a person go in the name of love?
Just in case the reader can’t figure it out for himself, this is the central question in The Choice, reiterated often enough so that even the slowest of readers comes to understand that it is intended, in the long run, to be what the book is all about. And I do mean the long run.
The first hundred pages of the book involve Travis Parker’s pursuit of his lovely neighbor, Gabby Holland, who already has a boyfriend. Those pages may be the story of a whirlwind romance that causes Gabby to dump her boyfriend, but it reads as the slowest budding romance in history.
The rest of the book then skips ahead eleven years. Travis, now Gabby’s husband (surprise!) spends the next several pages reminiscing about their marriage. It has produced two daughters, and despite a short rocky time, has mostly been blissful. The author plays with you for several pages before you find out that Gabby is in a hospital, in a coma. Travis is now faced with The Choice: he must decide whether or not to honor her stated and documented desire not to be kept alive if she is ever comatose.
The feel-good ending is no surprise, despite Spark’s efforts to keep us guessing.
If you love romances where everyone talks at length (o, endlessly) about feelings, this is the book for you. To this reader, it reeked of soap opera of a kind that makes me cringe. The characters are incredibly sensitive, incredibly articulate, and incredibly inclined to spill their guts.
The sad part of this is that Sparks, whose many books sit high on The New York Times bestseller lists, writes well, with lovely descriptions of his beloved outer banks of North Carolina. Unfortunately his human subjects have all the heft of a hearts-and-flowers, mass-manufactured get well card. It is, ultimately, a trivial book.