Brian Hall earned critical acclaim for his imaginative account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company ( Mar/Apr 2003). Here, he uses the techniques of fiction to explore the life and troubles of poet Robert Frost.
The Story: An adventure undertaken late in the famous American poet’s life, a 1962 diplomatic visit to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev shortly before the Cuban missile crisis, lies at the heart of the novel. Frost, then 88 and infirm, had hoped that his poetry would save the world. Interspersed with this unfolding debacle are tragic episodes that beset Frost from his earliest years, including the loss of his father, the institutionalization of his only sibling, the untimely deaths of three of his children and the involuntary commitment of a fourth child, and a failed marriage. In Hall’s hands, Frost emerges as a man who suffered much and confronted the world during difficult times, yet never succumbed to despair.
Viking. 340 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 067001866X
"[A] brilliant novel. … [T]hroughout the novel he captures the interior life of a public man in a remarkably credible way. If one purpose of fiction is to enlarge readers’ empathy for others, Hall has decidedly succeeded." Katherine Bailey
"Quotations from [Frost’s] poems and letters are woven deftly through the narrative, and every incident is based on documentary evidence. Hall’s stream of Frost’s consciousness is deep with detail and treacherous with waterfalls of sudden chronological leaps, but slowly the poet’s long and eventful life emerges as a continuous whole." Richard Wakefield
"Like Frost’s poetry, Hall’s novel is pungent, deceptively simple and magnificently sad. … [T]he disjointed structure allows a feeling of intimacy, the sense of inhabiting a restless mind." Peter Behrens
"At its best, Hall’s prose attempts to reach the lyric intensity of Frost’s poetry. … It’s a highly subjective portrait to be sure, but an enjoyable one if it’s read as intended—as a novel, not as fact." Elizabeth Hoover
Chicago Sun Times
"Hall’s choice of a free-floating chronology of short scenes … continually interrupts and restarts itself without any clear point or payoff. Probably he wants to create a feeling of the stream of Frost’s life, past and present flowing together, but the actual effect is simply jumbled, which in the course of a long novel becomes tiresome." Kevin Nance
Reviewers generally praised this fictionalized biography of the great American poet. Most lauded Hall’s novel as a beautiful and well-written, albeit sad, account of Frost’s tragic life. Every critic mentioned the unconventional narrative structure—128 short vignettes that dramatize various events from Frost’s life. Those already acquainted with Frost’s life story will have an easier time comprehending the nonchronological account presented here ("Moscow 1962" is near "The Derry Farm, New Hampshire 1902"). A few critics, however, found the structure confusing and recommended that fans of Frost’s poetry may prefer to read a more conventional biography before tackling this one.
An Actual Biography
Robert Frost (1999): In previous biographies, particularly those by Lawrance Thompson, a former Frost disciple who later turned on his mentor, the poet was the victim of unbalanced, negative portrayals. Here, author and poet Parini—who also wrote a biography of John Steinbeck—offers a more nuanced look at the brilliant, depressive artist. | Jay Parini