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Bookmarks Issue: 
54-Sept-Oct-2011
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A-AstralA graduate of the legendary Iowa Writer's Workshop, Kate Christensen won the PEN/Faulkner Award for her fourth novel, The Great Man (2007). Her essays and articles have appeared in several publications, including the New York Times Book Review and the Wall Street Journal. The Astral is her sixth novel. Recently Reviewed Trouble ( 3 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2009).

The Story: Fifty-seven-year-old unemployed poet Harry Quirk's life is crashing down around him, and he is powerless to stop it. His wife of 30 years, a volatile Mexican-American nurse named Luz, kicked Harry out of their Brooklyn apartment after she read his latest manuscript, a collection of love poems, and decided that he must be having an affair. Their daughter Karina, a lesbian "freegan" (dumpster diver), has reluctantly become their sole means of communication, and their son Hector has joined a religious cult in Sag Harbor. While Harry crashes on friends' sofas and searches for work, he struggles to understand exactly how he got into this mess, and he plots to set things right.
Doubleday. 320 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780385530910

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Admittedly, Harry is not exactly a likable narrator, with his intractable selfishness and myopic worldview, for a majority of the story. But underneath his personal brand of chaos and melancholy, a reader can't help but be pulled into his lyrical observations of the city, the people around him, and his own limited humanity." S. Kirk Walsh

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Christensen's prose is clean and her characters enthralling. ... Harry is the mainspring that makes The Astral tick: his voice, his confusion, his actions, his regrets." Robin Vidimos

Onion AV Club 4 of 5 Stars
"The Astral ... plunges a middle-aged poet into a midlife crisis, but his slow progress out resonates far beyond the terms of his particular arrangement. ... As [Harry's] impotent rages subside, he engenders sympathy without creating a new, splashy personality for himself to cover the prickliness and despair of his separation." Ellen Wernecke

San Antonio Exp-News 4 of 5 Stars
"The Astral is provoking and at times profoundly moving. But it also succeeds in its fond descriptions of a neighborhood virtually unknown outside of New York (and all too often written off within it), an area that even in its perhaps inevitable gentrification persists in holding on to its gritty ‘Old World' ways. So-called hipster interlopers live amid Polish immigrants and old-timers, and Christensen captures it all magnificently, down to the decaying majesty of the once-grand building honored in her title." Michelle Wiener

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Here she is doing what talented novelists do: creating a voice so rich with the peculiar timbre of lived experience that you feel as though she's introduced you to a witty, deeply frustrated (and frustrating) new friend. ... The Astral is largely a rumination on marriage, wise enough to inform anyone who's been at it a while but maybe too dark for kids just starting off." Ron Charles

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"At Christensen's strongest moments, her characters' ruminations on how the forces of love and deception work in tandem within a relationship are both searing and concise. ... After a while, however, these insights are laid on so thickly that reading The Astral begins to feel a bit like sitting in on someone else's post-divorce therapy sessions: emotionally honest, yes, but not exactly a day at the fun fair." Janelle Brown

Critical Summary

Christensen's accomplished pen transforms Harry, normally the type of character readers love to hate, into a "passionate, sexist, loving, complex man" (Washington Post). Critics, who cheered on Harry by the story's end, commending Christensen for her ability to create such a wonderfully believable male narrator. The Astral, driven by its characters and the author's carefully choreographed dance of tenderness and conflict, is, at heart, a meditation on the institution of marriage. Although some critics grew weary of Harry's navel-gazing, they were consoled by his searing observations, rendered in Christensen's graceful but visceral prose ("like being bludgeoned with an exquisitely painted sledgehammer," notes the San Francisco Chronicle.) Engaging and heartfelt, The Astral may not be an easy read, but it is definitely a worthwhile one.

Also by the Author

The Great Man (2008): Award Star PEN/Faulkner Award. When renowned painter Oscar Feldman dies, his wife, his sister, and his longtime mistress and twin daughters by her decide to bare all to two biographers in an attempt to set the record straight--with possibly devastating results.