Saturday, February 13, 2010

Review of the Day: Homer & Langley




E. L. Doctorow’s latest novel, Homer and Langley, inspires an atypical first-person review from me. I almost always write objective, third-person reviews, but my reaction to this book is entirely subjective. There is nothing (or not much) that is objectively wrong with this novel, but it was not for me.

The story was inspired by Homer and Langley Collyer, two reclusive brothers who lived in their family mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Both were pretty crazy, Langley more than his younger brother Homer, who went blind (a blind Homer -- that part would be too gimmicky if it were not true).

Doctorow is an excellent writer. His subject matter for this book is fascinating. He tells a very sad story with grace and beauty.  Then why didn’t I like it?

Well, for one thing particular to this book, Doctorow’s story of the fictional Collyer brothers differs jarringly from the lives of the real Collyer brothers. Yes, they were two reclusive brothers, but they lived many decades earlier than in Doctorow’s book, so didn’t participate in many events that are key to the novel. In particular, Langley did not fight in WWI and Homer did not go blind when he was a teenager (not until he was in his 50s). Both died in 1947, so never watched the moon landing, protested the Vietnam War, enjoyed the pleasures of a love-in, or took part in any of the other post-WWII events that make up over half of the book.

I know, I know – this is fiction, not a biography. Doctorow is entitled to some license. But the buzz about this book is that it is “based on” a true story and it really isn’t. “Inspired by,” yes; but not “based on.” I would have far preferred a novel that hewed closer to the facts. There was enough material to work with in the actual lives of the Collyer brothers without having to make so much up. Their lives were interesting enough without making them incredible. Their deaths were sad enough without making them terrifying. I felt manipulated by Doctorow’s over-the-top treatment.

Another reason I didn’t care for this book is more general to Doctorow. He uses the same "parade of history" approach that served him so well with Ragtime, with the brothers participating in a tangential way with the major events of the 20th Century. I just do not like this outline for a story. It requires a relentlessly marching pace and creates a broad, shallow plot. Here, the story of how the brothers view their lives and their relationship is fascinating enough, without unexplored digressions such as their Japanese housekeepers being sent to an internment camp in 1942 or their improbable connection with an attempted gangland assassination.

So, this is a well-written book by a talented author. Many people love it and I am sure it will do phenomenally well. It will probably win prizes and be made into a movie. But I didn’t like it and, because the ending was so horrifyingly sad, I wish I had never read it.

NOTES

I am please to scratch this one off my LibraryThing Early Review list.


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