Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sunset Park by Paul Auster — 320 pgs


Book CoverTwenty-something Miles Heller is in a relationship with a much younger woman. In fact, the woman in question is underage. After a brief scuffle in Florida with her family over their relationship, Miles moves back to New York for a few months while he awaits his lover's eighteenth birthday, sharing a house with a few friends and acquaintances. Though this seems to be a normal arrangement, the four people sharing the house are actually illegal squatters who have taken over the run-down farmhouse in the far reaches of Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Miles is considering visiting the family from whom he's been estranged for seven years and is mulling over his complicity in the death of his step-brother, Bobby. Miles' father and mother are deeply delighted that he's decided to make contact after all these years, and unbeknownst to Miles, have been keeping tabs on his whereabouts through a friend. As the narrative thread winds its way along, the reader gets glimpses of the situation as seen through the eyes of Miles, his parents and the three other squatters. Both sparse and evocative, Auster relates a story of a very unusual yet somehow ordinary set of people trying to find peace and permanence in the harsh realities of today's society.

Lately I've been reading a lot about Paul Auster and his writing. Most of what I've heard has been encouraging, but I have to admit I was a bit intimidated. After reading Steph's review of The New York Trilogy, I knew that this was an author I wanted to tackle and quickly bought my own copy, which I promptly let linger quietly on my shelf. When the opportunity arose for me to read Sunset Park came, I was excited and thrilled and found myself inordinately consumed with questions about the book. Would I understand it, or would it all go over my head? Would it be too complex for me to really get a good handle on what Auster was trying to do with the story? What I found was that although Auster's writing can be deeply complex, I had no trouble understanding or relating to his story or the characters in it.

Sunset Park deals with a handful of very different characters sharing a lot of the same emotions and feelings. Though they are at different stages in life and in differing places, all are dealing with loneliness, apathy and identity issues. These themes were forefront in the novel and very fluid from character to character. Each of the main players spends time dealing with regret and missed opportunity, and share common feelings of dissatisfaction for their lives and in the relationships that they have. They are all beset by individual quandaries but are all facing the same issues from different perspectives. I thought it was interesting that Auster does such a wonderful job of making each of these characters so similar, yet there is no chance that you will mistake one for another, and equally no chance that their plights will become repetitive and overdone. There's an underlying pathos to all the tales here, and although there's no overt drama, there is some slightly stinging sadness that permeates the narrative and which made the characters and their stories very sympathetic to me.

The plot in this novel is not really fast flowing nor expansive, and it can be argued whether or not there's really a plot here at all. The book is more of a handful of character studies, and as such, spends a lot of time delving into the past and present situations of the people Auster chooses to write about. These character sketches are generous and one of the things I like about Auster's writing is that he's kind to his characters. This is not only true in the literal sense but also in the figurative sense, as each character is given time to explain themselves and their actions, and each facet of their personalities is fully detailed. Not one of the characters gets short shrift, and even those on the periphery seem to get a chance to validate themselves and tell their side of the story. There were a couple of characters who rather put me off, but even so, they were still very three-dimensional and interesting, and I felt something akin to closeness to all of them. I think this had to do with the strength of Auster's creation of them, and the fact that they were all so lifelike.

Auster's writing style was very quiet and spare. Things were not overly described or plodding; rather it seemed that he chose to relate things in a simple and straightforward manner. Certain themes and symbols were scattered throughout the novel and tied together nicely through differing segments, making this story a little more literary and portentous than others I've read recently. I especially liked the varying statements made on modern day America, and specifically, the economic downturn that so many are facing today. There was a boldness and an inevitability in the description of theses scenes that made them feel at once refreshing yet also strangely hopeless. A great deal of page space was given over to the internal thoughts of the characters and to the motivations behind their actions, which is something I enjoyed a lot. I like knowing why someone feels as they do and why they're doing the things they are doing, which is something Auster does just right. At its close, the story suddenly shifts and all that the reader knows becomes invalid and malleable. This is something I felt was very well done, and I enjoyed the fact that the end of the book wasn't tied up in a neat little bow and didn't feel contrived.

If you haven't read anything by Auster, I would definitely recommend this book. It's not nearly as intimidating as I thought it would be, and it has the added benefit of being remarkably agreeable in style and execution. Those readers who like character studies will eat this book up, and despite the fact that it's written with in a quiet and undemanding hand, I enjoyed it very much. I'm looking forward to reading The New York Trilogy and possibly other books by Auster. Recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

21 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

You read the most interesting books! It's interesting too because I think when you're in your twenties, the age difference with a 17 year old might seem very different than say if you're 40 and 32, for example. Thanks for the intriguing review!

Steph said...

I'm so glad you finally got over your fear and read your first Paul Auster! I completely understand about being inspired by a blog post and purchasing a book only to then feel like you just can't read it... that's happened to me countless times. This definitely sounds like an Auster that I would be interested in reading - not all of his books sound like they'd be good fits for me, but I certainly do like books that spend a lot of time on the characters.

Nymeth said...

I've been meaning to read Auster for ages, so I'll definitely keep this one in mind! I appreciate you mentioning it's not really intimidating, as I do confess to being somewhat scare of him :P

mynovelreviews said...

Adding this one to my wish list - it sounds really interesting!

Darlene said...

I'm glad you liked this one. It does sound interesting but I'm almost positive it wouldn't be for me. Thanks for a great review.

Marie said...

I can't wait to read his latest. I've been a fan of his for years. THE NEW YORK TRILOGY is one of my all time favorites. Love love love Auster! Thanks for the great review!

Sandy Nawrot said...

OK, well you have at least convinced me not to be intimidated, which was really my issue. Still I've been circling around this book, wondering if it might work for me. Great review, Heather, as always!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Glad u liked this one. I am hoping I enjoy it more than (2) others I read by him over the last 5 years. One was Travels in the Scriptorium, and the other Brooklyn Follies.

softdrink said...

It's good to know other people are scared of Auster, too. I have yet to overcome my fear, though.

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I haven't heard of these books before. I will have to check them out. Adding to my wishlist! Great post.

Amy said...

I haven't read anything by the author. I actually don't know if I had even heard of the author! Sounds interesting though.

Lenore said...

I am not a big Paul Auster fan. I read the first of the NY trilogy and while it was fine, it never inspired me to want to read more.

Pam said...

Ah! This is on my list. I'm also, admittedly a bit shy of Mr. Paul but I suppose if enjoyed this I should give it a go...

Jenny said...

Blech. I didn't care for the one Auster book I read, and then I didn't like the one book by his wife that I read, and now I have just gone off the family forever. FOREVER.

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I haven't read any Paul Auster, so it's good to hear that he's not as intimidating as I was thinking he was, too! I will definitely keep an eye out!

As always, Heather -- what a fabulous review! You have an absolutely fantastic way of giving the perfect insight into a book!

Jenny said...

I've never read anything by him but have a few of his books on my TBR "new york" shelf. Now I'm excited to get and read this!!

Meghan said...

I also have Auster's New York trilogy and I also let it linger on my shelf! I haven't been sure whether to read this; I've seen varying reviews. Yours makes it sound very good, though, especially because I do very much like character studies.

Jenners said...

You are always reading books and authors that no one else seems to read (and I mean that in a good way). I think I've seen this author's name but didn't have any real sense of what kind of writer he was. Somtimes it is nice to read something that has a little more weight to it, isn't it?

bermudaonion said...

I've been intimidated by Auster's work as well. I might have to give it a try now, even though you do read much deeper books than I do.

nomadreader (Carrie) said...

I'm surprised I haven't heard more about this book, but your review has me adding it to my pile. Auster is an author I've intended to read for years, but this premise sounds quite interesting. Thanks!

Liz @ Cleverly Inked said...

I prefer a writer who isn't overly done with description. I find it hard to relate to a book when I have to read about the color of a tree and the way the pants the MC was wearing ruffled in the breeze.

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