three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
30-Sept-Oct-2007
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0

A-DivisaderoTeenage sisters Anna and Claire help their widowed father on an isolated farm in northern California and secretly vie for the attentions of Coop, the farmhand. Suddenly, an act of violent rage forces the family to take flight; years later, Coop and Claire meet by chance, and suppressed memories resurface with unforeseen consequences. Meanwhile, Anna, now a literary scholar, has tried to completely divorce herself from her past: she has changed her name and traveled to rural France to research the life of World War I–era writer Lucien Segura. While Segura’s story comprises the latter half of the novel, his secrets and passions reveal disconcerting parallels to Anna’s own life.
Knopf. 288 pages. $25. ISBN: 0307266354

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"It is powered by narrative force and contains finely chiseled characters. Divisadero, however, is also a book profuse with poetic imagery, profound themes and the delicate architecture of open verse." John Barron

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Ondaatje spends more than half of this novel following [Anna, Claire, and Coop], interlacing their stories, expertly shifting into different voices and tenses, disrupting the conventional chronology with the easy grace that has become his hallmark. … The two stories [of Anna and Segura] do mesh, of course, but without the aid of any awkward contrivances or outlandish coincidences." Jeff Turrentine

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"His passion and erudition, his very emotionality, are what prevent Ondaatje from being solely a novelist of ideas—but in conceiving and composing Divisadero as an opus in two parts, he has fallen in love more with the refrains and signature moments of humanity than with the individual stories. While one admires the beauty of particularities in the last half of the novel, you can’t help longing (as Anna must) for the greater sweep of the entire story that shaped them all." Gail Caldwell

Contra Costa Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ondaatje’s frequent shifts in time, place and point of view can be disorienting. But the persistent reader will be rewarded with a richly told tale and much to ponder about the human condition and the state of the world." Peter Magnani

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s easy to become hypnotized by Ondaatje’s singularly beautiful and careful words that lull us into overlooking the improbability of his stories and the vagueness of his voices. … Exquisitely crafted and imbued with Ondaatje’s acutely sensitive intelligence, Divisadero pulls its readers inside the novelist’s craft (‘I love the performance of a craft … I am interested only in the care taken,’ writes Segura) like being inside an intricate pocket watch to learn its movements." Bob Hoover

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The writing, as in so much of Ondaatje’s previous work, is exquisite, but the two sundered halves of Divisadero will not hold. Those who come to this novel expecting The English Patient or Running in the Family will find it curiously over-polished—a book that hides behind its own projected depth." Thomas Meaney

Seattle Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"The link between [the two stories] is tenuous and fails to generate any kind of narrative tension. Worse, the characters themselves are close to ciphers, and the ordeals Ondaatje puts them through—a freak Bay Area ice storm, a rabid dog flying through a window—seem capricious at best." Michael Upchurch

Critical Summary

How do we account for the critics’ varied reactions to Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel? Is it "a beautifully crafted tale" (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) or a "strangely broken-back beast of a novel" (Seattle Times)? Critics uniformly praised Ondaatje’s graceful language and poetic imagery, but agreed on little else. Some applauded the nonlinear plot structure, while others found the constantly shifting times, places, and narrators confusing. Characters were pronounced both well-drawn individuals and flat, indistinguishable stereotypes. Several critics lamented the sudden, unexpected shift to Segura’s life story, which left the previous plot unresolved. Readers should note that the critics who enjoyed Divisadero the most were those who approached it as a work of art rather than a conventional novel.

Also by the Author

The English Patient (1992): Award Star Man Booker Prize. Four people take refuge in an Italian villa during the last days of World War II. Each is haunted by the mystery of the nameless English patient, critically burned and waiting to die in an upstairs room.