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.


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

chaotic compendiums
(If you would like your review listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.)


  1. Thanks for your review on this one. I liked "Ragtime" a lot, but his main characters in "Ragtime" were fictional, so you could kind of roll along with the story. I agree with you that taking two real guys and putting them in a time period they didn't live in is just plain weird. Sort of like making Elizabeth Bennet from "Pride and Prejudice" live in the 20th century.

  2. SocrMom -- Lots of people like this book, so I am on the outside on this one. I actually liked Ragtime for a little while, then it tired me. There are many books that use the same March of History idea, not just Doctorow's, and it usually feels a little forced to me.

  3. The reviews for this book seem to be all over the place. I'm not sure it's for me.

  4. As you know, I just loved this. I thought of it was a re-imagining so whether or not it matched the real brothers' lives didn't matter to me. I loved the characters, their relationship, & the writing & it utterly broke my heart. I suspect, however, that it is not a book for everyone for all the reasons that I just wrote. & yes, you can link to my review:

    Have a lovely weekend!

  5. Bermuda -- Lots of people liked it. Read Caitlin's review and it could change your mind.

    Caitlin -- Thanks for the link. I'll add it. I think you are a more open-minded reader than I am. I get stuck in my ways about what I like or don't like.

  6. I ended up being slightly disappointed in this one too. I ended up rating it a 3 out of 5. I though it was interesting but not compelling when it could have been both. If it hadn't been so short, it might not have rated it that high.

  7. I appreciate your comparison to Ragtime because I totally did not connect with the characters in that novel due to the pacing and shallowness. I would hate to go through that again.

    And I really dislike a story being called "based on" when it really should be "inspired by". That happens all of the time in Hollywood and then you research the characters and find that the only thing real is that there was a person named such-and-such.

  8. I wasn't crazy about it either. I haven't read any other Doctorow, but it just didn't connect for me. I love the TV show Hoarders and I wanted it to be more like that. Plus the historical stuff seemed kind of random and unbalanced.


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