Just finished In the Deep Midwinter by Robert Clark this morning. It…wasn’t bad. And a pretty quick read, even with the most stereotypical title that simply had no relationship to the text that I could see beyond pretentiousness. Let’s talk about it not as in a literary review, but as I would any genre book or online fic.
It takes place in the late forties, and cyclically follows the story of a family. Richard [Somebody] is off to identify the body of his brother James, who was shot during a hunting expedition. He cleans and sorts his brother’s things, finding porn and a mysterious letter from the fancy hotel where his brother and Mrs. [Somebody] whose name begins with “S” were over-charged for a room. But his brother didn’t have a wife. Richard’s wife, however, is named *gasp* Sarah. Then we switch to Richard and Sarah’s daughter, Anna, who currently is divorced and dating an only-almost-divorced man named Charles. Anna also has a toddler son named Douglas, who eventually grows up to have stringy hair and be creepy–but that isn’t really relevant to the story.
Back to Richard, who found a letter in his brother’s things, addressed in his wife’s hand. Then he goes home to said wife, and obsesses over what he doesn’t know (because he won’t read the letter). Sarah notices his distraction, and angsts. She notices this even though they still, like all decent people, have separate beds–which I admit I never believed happened, but apparently in those days decency and procreation trumped comfort–and this is a subject actually clarified in-text.
Oh, and in looking for any “S” who is not his wife, Richard goes looking for his brother’s old girlfriends and finds a Susan. Yay! Only not, because she’s a forty-year-old graduate student, she knew better than to stay with James, who was a flake. Richard, of course, finds himself lusting after her, because he wasn’t disturbed enough by the idea of his wife’s contemplation of infidelity.
Charles and Anna meanwhile are so in love, even though according to Anna’s mother it’s practically infidelity. Charles gets word from his boss it’s a good idea to get married, but Anna just stopped her period. These are not the days or classes for shotgun weddings so there’s panic, and not so much love. Anna wants Charles to take care of it.
Charles finds Anna an abortionist in the back of a taxi from a Catholic driver on the advice of feckless Henry, poor James’ hanger-on. She goes to the poor old man who has to work in the chiropractor’s office and is oh so comforting even though her fetus is a little old for this procedure, but let’s do it anyway. And then he gives her pills. Charles takes her home–and leaves her alone, because he’s a social-climbing jerk, and gets stuck in a snowdrift and looses his power and can’t make it back until Anna is in the hospital. Where it gets all philosophical, and I’ll talk about later. Anna thinks she died, and that’s a metaphor.
The second half of the novel ties everything up pretty much how you’d expect: Anna is too principled to stay with Charles, and he’s still a jerk; Sarah really did know what was going on this whole time, including the abortion that all the men thought she’d be too spastic to handle (because she had her own, and this is her only plot line I liked) and she didn’t go to the hotel with James? (I turned the book in this afternoon and have forgotten); Richard didn’t actually sleep with Susan because coming close freaked him out and left him discombobulated for hours, and I wish it was that easy to articulate everyone’s thoughts in such heightened emotions (Richard: my favorite character by so very far); and by the way, everyone’s entire life is summarized in the epilogue, like after an ensemble true-story movie when they tell you what happens to each character in a freeze-frame on their face as the credits go by. Before I forget–Sarah’s mother had dementia, so Anna has it in 2000 or so. I’m not sure why.
Of all things, I would say it was very–lyrically sterile. The language was beautiful, but it left me cold. To a certain extent that may have been the point. But mostly, I don’t really care. The different threads of the story and character intersections simply felt too scattered for me to connect to the themes. Which were: 1) abortion should be legal and 2) and 3) were (distantly) generations and secrets, etc.
Mostly, the first bothered me. Not because of the subject or political stance, but because, unlike the others, it was simply overwrought. As soon as the issue came up the ‘characters’ spouted the most over the top philosophy and metaphors I simply had to stop skimming. It wasn’t all bad though. In the aftermath of the illegal abortion (which was of course awful) the reactions of the parents, the doctor initially , and even Charles were all sincere and moving. Then Charles starts thinking “oh gosh I can’t love her anymore” blah blah, but philosophizing being a misogynist, and totally over the top. And then at the end he tells Anna he got his dream job, and she resents him for not asking her to go with him, though she hasn’t liked him since the abortion–fair enough. And anyway, he’s punished by his son dying in a car accident and his daughter not speaking to him. Anna apparently, could never land another man (which was all I could think after all the monologuing going on about her throwing herself into love earlier).
Richard! Richard was so awesome. In a reminiscence, his wife calls him a “shy moon-calf” paraphrased, and he was sort of like that. The upright, old-fashioned, affectionate father-figure type–appropriate–and I loved when he conspired with Anna and gives her advice, which is all pretty good. And he’s a worrier, and he actually goes to see his brother’s body in the morgue because he worked as an ambulance driver in WW1 (not really creepy actually, it worked). and he cries going through his brother’s things, and he holds it all together, and he has vague ideas of killing the doctor who hurt his baby even though he’s never understood the inclination to murder at all before, and really, overall, he’s just a sweet old man (odd conclusion after that last bit, I imagine, but, you’d have to read it–and think like me).
But James’ whole story felt odd to me, because it’s right at the beginning, and then it does eventually come up again, but only somuchas Henry can tell Richard it was really suicide. So-yeah. In between, Anna’s and Charles’ relationship was so entwined and unified that by the time it came up again I really didn’t care, and didn’t know what do do with it.
To back up a little bit, the abortion bit drove me up the wall for wordiness and soapboxing (well, okay, compared to *bad* fiction, it, well, wasn’t bad. But it felt very over-the-top and there really wasn’t a lot of room for subtly. Even the generations thing tended to be blatant–though I thought Sarah’s abortion was handled much more deftly than her daughter’s, and in comparison to the dementia thing that was more like, really? I liked the thread of secrets though. It felt much more natural that they talked around the secrets, didn’t really think of them until there was a catalyst, but their lives were affected nonetheless. And the secrets weren’t just spilled all at once, and there weren’t wrenching confessions, and things weren’t necessarily changed–very nicely handled, and mostly felt real.
Not a bad book of fiction all-in-all, it’s ‘literature’. I don’t know that it was a classic, but I did enjoy most of the reading, and it didn’t take too long. Wordy, maybe, but great atmosphere. There isn’t one of my friends I’d actually recommend it to, but only because their reading lists are all entirely too long for anything but the next Greatest Thing Ever.