In his long-awaited new novel, Norman Rush, author of three immensely praised books set in Africa, including the best-selling classic and National Book Award-winner "Mating, " returns home, giving us a sophisticated, often comical, romp through the particular joys and tribulations of marriage, and the dilemmas of friendship, as a group of college friends reunites in upstate New York twenty-some years after graduation.Read more...
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In his long-awaited new novel, Norman Rush, author of three immensely praised books set in Africa, including the best-selling classic and National Book Award-winner "Mating, " returns home, giving us a sophisticated, often comical, romp through the particular joys and tribulations of marriage, and the dilemmas of friendship, as a group of college friends reunites in upstate New York twenty-some years after graduation.
When Douglas, the ringleader of a clique of self-styled wits of "superior sensibility" dies suddenly, his four remaining friends are summoned to his luxe estate high in the Catskills to memorialize his life and mourn his passing. Responding to an obscure sense of emergency in the call, Ned, our hero, flies in from San Francisco (where he is the main organizer of a march against the impending Iraq war), pursued instantly by his furious wife, Nina: they're at a critical point in their attempt to get Nina pregnant, and she's ovulating It is Nina who gives us a pointed, irreverent commentary as the friends begin to catch up with one another. She is not above poking fun at some of their past exploits and the things they held dear, and she's particularly hard on the departed Douglas, who she thinks undervalued her Ned. Ned is trying manfully to discern what it was that made this clutch of souls his friends to begin with, before time, sex, work, and the brutal quirks of history shaped them into who they are now--and, simultaneously, to guess at what will come next.
"Subtle Bodies" is filled with unexpected, funny, telling apercus, alongside a deeper, moving exploration of the meanings of life. A novel of humor, small pleasures, deep emotions. A novel to enjoy and to ponder.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-07-08
- Reviewer: Staff
Norman Rush is famous (and popular with readers who like their novels dense with word play and complication) for very long books set in Africa. Only 256 pages and set mainly in the Catskills, this work is a departure, but it’s still recognizably Rushian. Although Nina, one of two point-of-view characters, isn’t invited, when her husband, Ned, flies off on hearing of the death of the leader of his middle-aged band of college friends, she hops the next plane—she’s ovulating and time is of the essence. Good thing: the Rush responsible for Mating’s distinctive female narrator is still a deft hand at creating smart, funny, complicated women. Ned is likable, too, and it’s nice to see a happy marriage, a rare beast in fiction about the middle-aged. Unfortunately, the rest of Ned’s band of reunited smarty pantses are pills of varying kinds, especially the recently deceased Douglas, whom Nina calls “the world’s champion” of “walking out on foreign films he personally found highly overrated and taking his pack of stupid fool friends along with him.” As events in Douglas’s Catskills castle play out, with the friends coping with their middle-aged selves, the orchestration of Douglas’s funeral, and the byzantine rollout of information about Douglas’s life, marriage, and finances, even Nina can’t save the book from growing talky and claustrophobic. 50,000 first printing. (Sept. 10)
The gravity between us
The phrase subtle bodies refers to the part of ourselves that is not our physical form but rather our consciousness, spirit, the essence of what makes us who we are. In his third and long-awaited novel of the same name, Norman Rush explores what happens when a group of college friends reunite for the funeral of one of their own, forcing them to examine the core experiences of who they once were and how their lives have changed over the ensuing decades.
Subtle Bodies takes place just before the outbreak of the second Iraq War and is set in motion by the death of Douglas, the charismatic ringleader of a group of college friends who continued to live together for several years after graduation. Doug’s unique brand of humor unified the group, and their communal life was a kind of highly self-conscious performance art filled with private jokes and even a secret language.
Four of the now 40-something men are summoned to Doug’s Hudson River Valley estate to take part in an elaborate memorial service. Once a seamless community of acolytes following the direction of their self-appointed leader, they now struggle to find ways to connect. Ned, who is planning the coordination of a large antiwar demonstration in California, comes to New York begrudgingly, questioning the very significance of the group. Can what seemed essential at age 20 still be relevant at age 40? His wife, Nina, follows him in hot pursuit. After years of childlessness, the couple is at a critical point in trying to get pregnant, and she is reluctant to let Ned go, even for a weekend.
Subtle Bodies is told by Ned and Nina in alternating chapters, with Ned struggling to understand just what made Doug so influential and Nina’s wisecracking irreverence for her husband’s mentor. In fact, it is her tart commentary and the way she gently pokes fun at what the group once held sacred that give this novel much of its quirky charm.
Subtle Bodies is the first of Rush’s novels not set in Africa. It is also shorter by half than either Mating or Mortals. But Rush’s sharp observations of human foibles and his singular take on marriage and sex will be familiar to fans of his earlier work. A concise, humorous novel about what we discard and what we keep as we age, Subtle Bodies will both delight and make you think.