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The Sorrows of an American - Siri Hustvedt

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Author: Siri Hustvedt / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 17 January 2009 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton General Division / Title: The Sorrows of an American / ISBN 13: 9780340897089 / ISBN 10: 0340897089 / Alternative EAN: 9780340897096

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    2 Reviews
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    • More +
      27.03.2011 23:46
      Very helpful



      Novel about secrets and whys

      In some idle moments at the community shop, I picked up this book in the swap/borrow shelves. It had me hooked in pages, and so came home with me.

      Our protagonist is Erik, a psychiatrist. We first meet him as he goes through his recently deceased father's papers with his sister Inga and his mother in the family home in Minnesota. The adult children discover a mysterious letter alluding to some sinister act, from a woman they had never heard of before, Lisa. The pair decide not to worry their mother with it, but can't resist the impulse to find out what this secret of their father's was. This is one of a number of threads that draw us through the book.

      Back in New York, Erik acquires new tenants for the ground-floor flat of his home: the strikingly beautiful Miranda and her young daughter Eglantine. Erik yearns to get to know Miranda better, but is kept at arm's length, while her child takes to him and starts pushing notes & pictures under his door. It's not long before Erik realises Miranda is being troubled by a stalker. When this stalker's attention turns to Erik, the mild-mannered rationalist finds himself chasing the man through his house with a hammer. Can worse be to come?

      Meanwhile Inga has troubles of her own, as the widow of a famous writer, Max. Her new lover seems more interested in her as the widow of the great man than as a person in her own right. Then it comes to light that there may have been another woman in Max's life, that there may be letters and even a son. An obsessive journalist is sniffing around for a scoop while she and grown-up daughter Sonia try to work out if there's truth in Max's alleged double life.

      All of these threads of the main characters' lives are interwoven, with memories and childhood lore of growing up in Minnesota, of their father Lars' early life through his journals, moments with his psychiatric patients and the anecdotes of the people they track down to find out about Lisa. We see through Erik's eyes as he begins to untangle the stories of his father, Max and Miranda.


      As I said, this book got me hooked very quickly and promised great things. It has an intimate feel, is clever and engrossing, particularly early on. I'm glad I read it, but it's not a book I find easy to describe: it has all the ingredients to make a thriller or detective novel, but that's not what it's about nor where it leads.

      It was a really rich and enjoyable read. I liked the insight into the lives of Norwegian immigrants, through the stories of Lars' youth. I also enjoyed the cross-overs where Erik's patients intruded into his private life, whether it be through his memories or real-life. I felt the way it was written was well-done: you might expect a work which jumps between memory, anecdote and present-day to jar, but it didn't for me.

      I found it interesting how our narrator is surrounded by all these artistic types: Inga is also a writer, Sonia writes poetry, Miranda a painter and so on, right down to Eglantine with her string (an installation artist in the making, I feel!) The book itself is a bit of a work of art, an elegant tapestry of tales: it's deserving of the name, literature!

      That said, towards the end I began to realise that the opening line had pretty much summed up what lay ahead: "my sister called it the 'year of secrets', but when I look back on it now, I've come to understand it was a time not of what was there, but of what wasn't."

      There's a lot going on in this book, but ultimately it was unsatisfying: too much "what wasn't". I did think it was wonderfully written and really enjoyed the first half.


      If you fancy giving it a go, it's available new from Amazon at £5.99, although you can find it more cheaply no doubt.

      But for me, this'll be one borrowed (and returned) rather than swapped from the 'borrow/swap' shelves.

      Product details (as available from Amazon):

      # Hardcover: 320 pages
      # Publisher: Sceptre (29 May 2008)
      # Language English
      # ISBN-10: 0340897066
      # ISBN-13: 978-0340897065
      # Product Dimensions: 21.8 x 14 x 3.2 cm


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      • More +
        04.10.2009 20:55
        Very helpful



        Not her best by far.

        One of my standout reads of all time is "What I Loved" by this author, Siri Hustvedt; a clever book that was extremely well written and one that I enjoyed immensely. Her new novel, "The Sorrows of an American" was similarly billed as a spectacular read and I had high expectations that it would be an equally impressive book.

        **~~** Story Synopsis: **~~**

        Beginning with the death of his father Lars, Erik Davidsen unearths a secret that his father held for years - a promise that he had made to a woman called Lisa. Along with his sister Inga, Erik decides to find out more about the cryptic letter this woman had sent their father thanking him for keeping a secret that is now many years old.

        Although this is the main plot, there are many subplots (as is the authors style) that keep the reader entertained throughout. Firstly, Inga and her teenage daughter have also suffered the loss of their husband/father who was a successful writer. His death attracted media attention and along with it, more skeletons that keep coming out of the closet. Erik himself is a middle-aged divorced psychologist who has a crush on his new tenant, Miranda who is young and beautiful and has her young daughter in tow. Getting himself entangled in her life also means that he finds himself the centre of attention from her ex-boyfriend who it becomes clear has obsessive stalker tendencies. Through the first person narrative of Erik, we hear how he copes with these things happening in his life.

        **~~** Opinion... **~~**

        I found it very interesting from "What I Loved" that this female author could so successfully create such a strong narrative from a male character, and once again I was blown away with how effectively she created the main character of Erik. I also read that this book is semi-autobiographical, the characters in this book are of Norwegian decent like the author and the sections which describe Lars' life during the war are from the authors fathers journal of his time during the depression.

        At first, this book kept my interest. As promised, Hustvedt delivered on an incredibly well written and intelligent book. However, I found myself becoming frustrated with some of the storylines, and annoyed on occasion with some of the characters, in particular, Miranda and Erik.

        All of the mysteries and secrets involving the characters in this book were well set up and like I said before, held my interest up until about half way through the book. After that, I suddenly realised I was reading this for the sake of reading and I actually didn't really care about any of the characters in the story, none of them were compelling or all that interesting to me at all.

        Firstly, the way in which Miranda reacts to Erik and her stalker ex - boyfriend I found particularly odd and unnatural. Although Erik's clumsy advances towards Miranda are clearly unwelcome, I found that I didn't warm to her as a character due to how she constantly used him when it suited. Likewise, Erik's constant attention and border obsession was just as annoying.

        With regards to Miranda's relationship with her ex, I found that even more difficult to comprehend. She constantly stuck up for him, despite the fact that he was tormenting and following her around, and the fact that he took pictures of her that bordered on invasion of privacy. Despite the almost limitless possible storylines this could have created, it became a total letdown. The outcome of this storyline didn't interest me much at all; I had completely lost interest, but even If I hadn't, I would not have missed much anyway.

        The same could be said for the main story. There were some interesting plot twists and turns and I started off keen to find out what the secret was that Lars had promised to keep hidden all those years ago. The way in which the story was portrayed from the beginning was tantalising, so I expected a sordid secret or at least something fairly juicy - once it was revealed (I won't reveal what it was of course!) I re-read the chapter several times to double check that I hadn't missed anything....

        ...I hadn't and it really wasn't worth the big build up. It wasn't so much a let down, as a blink and you've missed it moment.

        **~~** Writing Skills & Summary...**~~**

        Obviously this author is an intelligent and talented lady, and this story isn't supposed to be about the revelation of a years old secret. I am reluctant to totally slate her style; her stories are about human interaction and always she throws up questions about the way we think and feel about things. Unfortunately for me, despite knowing this and appreciating how cleverly crafted MOST of the novel was, I felt utterly disappointed in the whole thing as I felt that these intelligent thoughts and sentences were constructed around nothing interesting at all. Intelligent writing alone was not enough to save this for me and It didn't have the impact I was expecting from the last of hers I read.

        Having said that, It wasn't bad enough for me to give up reading the book, but I wouldn't recommend this one - if you are new to this author, please read "What I Loved" - and perhaps leave it there.


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