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Bookmarks Issue: 
44-Jan-Feb-2010
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0

An Enhancement

A-GenerosityAward-winning novelist Richard Powers, whose works include The Gold Bug Variations (1991) and the National Book Award–winning The Echo Maker ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2007), began his career as a computer programmer. The effects of modern technology and scientific advancement on ordinary people have consistently been a featured theme in his work.

The Story: In 2020, Chicago art school student Thassadit Amzwar creates a stir in her small creative nonfiction writing class: despite the terrible tragedies she suffered in her native Algeria, 23-year-old Thassadit is relentlessly, contagiously cheerful. Suspecting she may suffer from an emotional disorder, her teacher, Russell Stone, consults school psychologist Candace Weld, who diagnoses Thassadit with hyperthymia--extreme, chronic happiness. As news of this remarkable trait spreads, Thassadit becomes a sought-after commodity, and Russell and Candace soon find themselves at odds with a renowned genetic researcher, Thomas Kurton, and a television journalist, Tonia Schiff, both of whom want to exploit the young woman for their own ends.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 296 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780374161149

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"With Generosity, as with most of his earlier works, Powers delves into the machinery and chemistry of personality, peering beyond the frontiers of scientific research to ask what it means to be human. ... Depending on personal philosophy, readers will disagree as to whether Generosity has a happy ending. But few will fail to be moved by Thassadit's joyful vision of human life." Chris Tucker

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Clearly, the emotional lives [of his characters] interest him less than the ideas they stir up, and here, secondary figures such as Kurton or television journalist Tonia Schiff function more as animated plot devices than human flesh and blood. Not unlike The Echo Maker, though, Generosity doesn't so much suffer from these limitations as it uses them to frame a rumination about identity and artifice, nature and nurture, the inexplicable forces that make us who we are." David L. Ulin

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"If Powers' novels can be measured by how human his characters remain amid the swim of ideas, [Generosity is] among his finest achievements. ... Powers' queries would mean little if Russell and Thassadit weren't as well drawn as they are--the big issues flow through the characters instead of drowning them." Mark Athitakis

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"The nature of happiness, nature versus nurture, the ethical consequences of scientific advance, information overload, loss of privacy in a world of social networking--all these jostle for our attention. ... In Generosity, Powers fuses riveting narrative and spot-on dialogue with thought-provoking social analysis." Dan Cryer

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"Like his other books, Generosity explores themes of science and technology--this time, the looming future of genetic engineering--with a mastery that would put any scientist at ease and with Powers' signature feat of remaining simultaneously accessible and cerebral. ... Powers has secured a place as one of our most exciting contemporary novelists, contemporary not merely because he is alive and writing (or speaking), but also because he deals with truly modern themes, unafraid to place humanity under science's microscope." Amanda Gefter

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Although you might expect a novel so weighted with medical and philosophical arguments to flatten its characters into brittle stereotypes, ultimately that's the most impressive aspect of this meditation on happiness and humanness. As Generosity drives toward its surprising conclusion, these characters grow more complex and poignant, increasingly baffled by the challenge and the opportunity of remaking ourselves to our heart's content." Ron Charles

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As it turns out, his new novel, Generosity, is an excellent introduction to Powers's work, a lighter, leaner treatment of his favorite themes and techniques. ... Powers is, when he chooses to be, an engaging storyteller (though he would probably wince at the word), and even as he questions the conventions of narrative and character, Generosity gains in momentum and suspense." Jay McInerney

Critical Summary

Hailed as Powers's most accessible work to date by the Denver Post and, conversely, as his most demanding novel thus far by the Washington Post, Generosity created a stir among critics. While Newsday protested the throng of subjects vying for readers' attention, others praised the complexity of Powers's novel of ideas. Critics also diverged over Powers's characters--"flesh-and-blood" (Denver Post) or "two-dimensional" (Los Angeles Times)--and his unnamed, postmodern narrator, who periodically interrupts the story to question readers' beliefs about the characters and plot. Despite these differences of opinion, all reviewers agreed that Generosity is a chilling and fascinating work that will provide readers with much food for thought.