My rating: 3 of 5 stars
i want to like this book better because of its excellent characterizations, but i can’t because those characterizations all come from such a limited range.
the cover flap tells you that the book spans 1962 to roughly present day, with backdrops of Dar es Salaam, Boston, Shenzhen, etc. and examines the lives of our three protags and their families. the problem is that every place and every life that isn’t new york, uppercrust is basically glossed over.
our protags are Harvard men, one having risen from the underclass and one whose Harvard (or Yale) seat was reserved at birth. our lady protag is–what, Wellesley?–which doesn’t matter so much because she doesn’t quite finish. she meets up with the Harvard men and we’re off on a love triangle. of sorts.
and so the characterizations of Hugh and Ed (more so the latter than the former) are detailed and twisty, just like real humans are. all to the good. i wish the author had spent more time with Hugh–to me he was by far the more interesting of the two.
our lady protag appears to be, by and large, a mystery, however. we don’t ever get to see the the world through her eyes. pity.
the historical sweep feels rather thin to me–the writer has captured some of the events but not, generally speaking and in my opinion, the feeling of the times. perhaps things feel rather different–more insulated and cushioned–at the rarefied airs of which she writes.
ditto the geographical locales. except for the east coast, we don’t really get a picture of Dar es Salaam or Shenzhen, despite the flap promise (and the scene in Shenzhen is downright icky–middle-aged white man ends up having wild animal sex with exotic Chinese woman–all consensual mind you but hey! let’s not talk about coercion, or fetishist other-ing of asians).
to my mind the real protag of this novel is money–the book is heavily about class and money, but not i think in a very analytical way about how money (the desire for, the lack of, the excess of) affects people. in the end, Hugh is a nice guy despite his having inherited a mint, and Ed is a nice guy despite having money-grubbed and lost a mint, and Helen is just kind of a minty mystery. so we read all about money at this one stratum, but not in the same way you’ll understand it after reading An American Tragedy or The Great Gatsby. here, money is just that nice stuff that everybody should have a bunch of, regardless of what they do to get it.
i admit, i could be totally missing the point of this novel. maybe it really is a novel of serious cultural/social criticism, or a searing psychological tale. but to me, it was a good-enough read with some nice spots, but never really lifted off beyond the i-liked-it range.