No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

2012/64: The Drowning Season -- Alice Hoffman

Phillip had not wanted to kill himself, and he truly felt sorry about ruining the hound’s-tooth jacket. He wanted only to be left alone. Alone, so that he could merge with the water. He believed any water was beautiful, whether for its dark waves or for its slow-moving currents. He wanted to be a part of that beauty, traveling at a natural speed through the waves, without effort.
[location 1358]

Esther the White is a Russian emigre with a complex and sometimes treacherous past, living in an isolated seaside property on Long Island. She is vaguely fond of her husband Mischa, though she has no interest in sharing his bed; determined to control her apparently-suicidal son Philip, whose summertime urge towards the water gives the novel its title; and enraged that Philip named his own daughter -- known as Esther the Black -- after Esther the White. You don't use a living person's name for a child.

The person she doesn't know what to do with is Cohen, a landscape artist whom she chose a quarter of a century ago to guard Philip against himself. Cohen knows a great deal about Esther the White, was present at many of her worst moments: he also happens to be in love with her, though she doesn't necessarily recognise this.

There's another tide, the tide of development threatening their peaceful enclave and the community in which they live. Esther the White is going to have to learn to let go of a lot of things -- and by doing so, perhaps bring herself closer to her granddaughter, and to the one person whose loyalty is unquestionable. And pretty much everyone in the novel is going to have to start telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Alice Hoffman's writing is always clear, evocative, precise: The Drowning Season is no different, yet it didn't move me as profoundly as some of her other novels. It's possible to read Esther the White as a witch, exerting preternatural control over her family; it's possible to read Philip as not quite human. But these are no more than suggestions. The supernatural, the magical, is less present (or too subtle) in this novel than in, for instance, The Blue Diary.

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