Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham

This is a story of three friends who, in their attempt to find their place in the world, try to redefine love and family. Bobby and Jonathon are childhood friends, growing up in Cleveland, and Clare is the woman they meet when they both end up living in New York. The three of them live together for some time in New York and in the process develop a love for one another. Theirs is not a love you normally read about in books, or see in movies. It is imperfect love, and sometimes selfish love. It changes too. By the end of the book, Clare appears to no longer love either of them. Is this not like real love?

Narrated by all three characters, as well as Jonathon’s mother Alice, this book is beautifully and thoughtfully written. All the characters are flawed, and all are looking for something they might be able to identify as love because they believe it will complete them. It is a deeply sad story about the fragility of people and the inconsistencies in people’s characters. The inconsistencies in this novel’s characters, however, unlike those in A Gate at the Stairs (my previous review), did not make the characters unbelievable. Instead the characters became profound, troubled, endearing and real.

As teenagers, Jonathon’s and Bobby’s relationship tipped over the edge of friendship into mild sexual exploration. Since parting ways almost ten years previously when they graduated from school, Jonathon has become openly gay, while Bobby remains a virgin. They are reunited when Bobby is forced to leave Cleveland and decides to seek out his only friend, Jonathon, who is now sharing a flat in New York with Clare. Their embarrassment about past sexual experimentation is assuaged by a new relationship of non-sexual love. One hot day, a most beautiful love scene takes place. This is an example of the overwhelming beauty that seeps through the pages of this book. Bobby is narrating.

We lay side by side on our towels, running the ice over our sweating skins. After a while he reached over and pressed his own ice cube against the mound of my belly. […] We didn’t talk any more about what we were doing. We talked instead about work and music and Clare. While we talked we ran ice over one another’s bellies and chests and faces. There was sex between us but we didn’t have sex—we committed no outright acts. It was a sweeter, more brotherly kind of lovemaking. It was devotion to each other’s comfort, and deep familiarity with our own imperfect bodies. As one cube melted we took another from the tray. Jonathon swabbed ice over my back, and then I did it to him. I felt each moment break, a new possibility, as we lay using up the last of the ice and talking about whatever passed though our heads. Above us, a few pale stars had scattered themselves across a broiling, bruise-colored sky (159-160).

For me, the saddest characters were Jonathon’s parents, Alice and Ned. Ned seemed to have such a heart-wrenchingly pathetic life, while Alice, who finally found happiness and love towards the end, presented a loving but lonely and isolated figure.

Jonathon himself was a very complicated character. In fact, I think he was a little bit too complicated and could have been developed better. It was clear, nevertheless, that he was very confused and was desperate to find his place in the world. Through Jonathon, the novel touches on the effect of AIDS on the gay community in 1980s New York. Themes of death, illness and our fear of them are weaved skilfully into the narration. Jonathon’s relationship with his lover, Erich, is another relationship that is explored with honesty so raw that sometimes it’s difficult to read.

Bobby was the most likeable character simply because he seemed so easy-going and happy to please everyone. The third part of the trio, Clare, who forms a romantic relationship with Bobby, was unlikeable; she was also the least believable of the characters. At times she seemed like a caricature of a fag hag—the older woman concerned with her fading looks who loves to party. And another small complaint: Jonathon’s and Bobby’s narrations were sometimes too similar. I would be reading away and think, ‘Who is this again?’

Apart from these quibbles, I really enjoyed this book. It’s not exactly a feel-good story that will put a spring in your step! But the story is original and though-provoking, and the writing style is incredibly beautiful. The major theme explored by this novel is our sense of always waiting for something better, particularly in terms of finding our place in the world, our ‘home’. This became particularly explicit at the end of the story when Jonathon, after storing his father’s ashes for years, finally decides to scatter them in a field near their home.

I just realized how ridiculous it is to hold on to my father’s ashes until I find some sort of perfect home for them. I’ve decided this is the perfect place (333).

There is no perfect place or time. There is no perfect love, no perfect family. Perhaps instead of waiting for perfection, the path to happiness is to decide that what we have right now is perfect.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic review. I'm definitely keen to check out this book now.