Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Review: Bread Upon the Waters

50 Book Challenge 2008 #2:
TITLE: Bread Upon the Waters
AUTHOR: Irwin Shaw
YEAR: 1981
GENRE: Fiction
PAGES: 479

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

In the tradition of Agee's A Death in the Family, or Guest's Ordinary People, this is a book about a family's whose life changes drastically after their tennis-playing teenage daughter becomes an unlikely hero one evening in Central Park. Driven by this one catalyst, the events that play out for the Strand Family become like dominoes, each one building momentum as they fall against each other.

Shaw does a masterful job with the narrative rhythm, careful not to show his hand too soon. This might infuriate some readers with a lack of patience or a preference for plot-driven narrative. The plot picks up speed about two-thirds of the way into the book, and comes to a halt (but by no means a "grinding" one) only at the very end.

This is a portrait of a family and the lives that touch it (and vice-versa). It is beautifully lifelike it its messiness, but also in its portrayal of perseverance. Tragedy does not always beget tragedy, but in Shaw's world, good deeds are not always wholly good, either.

It is a book about the complexities of life. The characters are "everyman" characters in that Shaw keeps them at a distance, so we become attached more to their predicaments than to the characters themselves. While this is more instructive for the reader, it does steal something from the fictional experience, at least for me.

Overall, a very fine novel that captures the angst of everyday life with a certain refreshing objectivity.

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