Monday, April 25, 2011

Three Stages of Amazement, by Carol Edgarian

Lena Rusch's life is so stressful--and Carol Edgarian describes it so well--that reading about it is painful. With her husband Charlie Pepper, she has recently relocated from Boston to the Bay Area, a move that meant leaving behind a much-loved job at WGBH. She has a five-year-old son Theo and an infant daughter, whose twin died at birth; the grief of losing Sylvie and the frightening medical challenges faced by Willa are debilitating. Meanwhile, Charlie works all the time, trying to get his start-up off the ground. He has a potential investor in the business, but has not told Lena that the investor is her uncle Cal, whom she despises. Nor has he mentioned that Lena's former lover Alessandro works for Cal.

While Lena is at the heart of the novel, Edgarian uses multiple narrators, including Cal, his wife Ivy, Alessandro, Charlie, and Theo. Cal and Ivy are wealthy beyond imagining (the engagement party they give for their daughter costs more than a million dollars), and Cal seems to enjoy his work as a venture capitalist, but their relationships--even with their daughter--are shallow. As the economy tanks (the book is set in 2009), the lives of Cal, Ivy, Charlie, and Lena all take turns for the worse as well, some expected, some surprising.

One of Edgarian's greatest achievements is her limning of Theo who--despite being only five--is a fully realized character. Quirky, bright, and hurting, Theo charms while breaking your heart as he pays the emotional price for the high-stress existence that Lena and Charlie live.

The first half of this book is emotionally wrenching; it also offers a view of wealth that was interesting (although somewhat repugnant). As Cal and Ivy's story gets more attention, however, I grew less interested. And Edgarian stumbled a bit as she tried to bring all the book's threads to a close that reflects Charlie and Lena's maturation. Nonetheless, I think Three Stages of Amazement is worth reading for its portrayal of family life in the twenty-first century and for Edgarian's lovely prose.

By the way, the three stages of amazement are silence, disbelief, and talk.

Favorite passages:
Grief was a stalker. It lurked in the china cabinet and in the waiting room at the dentist's and behind the switch on the hall light. it wined itself inside the tongue of sneakers and the click of pens and the heels of socks. Tea bags were infused with it, as were cereal boxes, board games, and the mail as it passed through the slot. Contrary to reputation, it never looked drab; it didn't care a whit about time. . . . it wasn't elegant. It wasn't easy or smooth. It rose with the sun and hid in the corners of fog. Surprisingly, it preferred hello to good-bye. It showed up on the beach and acted churlish in the park.

Theo refused. He'd been tugged at enough. He was tired. He had been "the best boy" in the hospital and, later, at that school. he thought , at the very least, he had a different kind of morning coming to him. He wanted to run tucked inside the flap of his mother's raincoat with them both pretending he was a baby bat. He wanted to tell her a story and have her listen carefully--a story that had no beginning or end.

Forgetting means remembering at an inconvenient time.

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