Danny Conroy grew up in The Dutch House (Harper, $27.99), the unusual, majestic mansion in the Philly suburbs that is the true main character of Ann Patchett’s elegant and moving novel. Part of the baby boom generation, Danny and his sister Maeve were abandoned by their mother when they were young and endured a difficult childhood with their father’s second wife who, interested only in the house, bore more than a passing resemblance to the storied evil stepmother. Richly evoking the different relationships—of the siblings, of their parents, of mothers and sons—and showing how they were both formed and warped by the house, Patchett’s deeply compelling narrative follows Danny as he matures, leaves the house and his father, but remains close to Maeve and their shared memories. Beautifully written with complex and fascinating characters, this novel is as intimate as it is panoramic.
Bruce Machart’s The Wake Of Forgiveness (Mariner, $14.95) is a fantastic debut. An American Western with all the scope that implies, the novel follows the Skala family over thirty eventful, sometimes explosive, years. It is a novel about men, certainly; the Skala boys, led by their merciless father, toil in the fields and plot and scheme to acquire land and influence. It is also a novel about women, or the absence of them, and the impact this has on the men as they grow. Machart blends sparing dialogue with strong emotional undercurrents. Yes, there are horse races, shoot-outs, arson, and other staples of the Western, but there is also a family coming to terms with who they are, and learning to accept themselves and each other.
Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) started writing a stunningly new poetry when he was sixteen; by age twenty-one, he’d given up literature forever. Why? What happened? Bruce Duffy tackles the first question by way of a powerful fictional dramatization of the second in Disaster Was My God (Doubleday, $27.95). As he did with Wittgenstein in The World as I Found It, Duffy brilliantly rides the line between fact and fiction, revitalizing legend with prose so vivid and muscular that every character it touches springs to energetic life. Equally evocative of place, Duffy’s narrative captures the seamy side of late-19th-century Paris, the rigors of a provincial French farm, and the myriad treacheries of an African desert. The novel interweaves several strands of Rimbaud’s episodic life, letting us in on his scandalous dalliance with the older poet Verlaine, his career as an arms merchant in Ethiopia, and his fraught relationship with his battleaxe of a mother—the only one of the many people he abandoned that he returned to. It was a wild, messy life; this is an exciting, beautiful novel.