three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
12-Sept-Oct-2004
By: 
George Hagen
user_rating: 
0

A Novel

A-LamentsWhen a maternity ward nurse mixes up a pair of newborns, Will (named for his fortitude) finds himself as part of the eccentric Lament family. "Laments travel!" is their motto, and—why not? Ever in search of greener pastures, the idealistic father drags his family from Southern Rhodesia in the mid-1950s to the Persian Gulf, England, and finally suburban America. Will laments their rootlessness: "To be a Lament was to be a perpetual stranger." No matter where they go, they fail to find the happiness they so desperately seek. Only when they leave British colonialism behind does "family" come to mean something.
Random House. 370 pages. $24.95.
ISBN: 1400062217

Detroit Free Press 4 of 5 Stars
"… [a] funny, quirky and picaresque debut novel. … Hagen, who is also the veteran of three continents at a tender age, has a great eye for his surroundings, whether physical or psychic." Linnea Lannon

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"He examines family, community, love and self—though it is worth mentioning that his literary perspective is different from the literature we’ve seen from current first-generation writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri. Hagen is more interested in telling a good story than in voicing a shared experience, and his observations tend to the social." Sarah Cypher

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Cleverly, it becomes a dystopian tale without losing its utopian soul. … The novel, in fact, resembles a series of skits working out its foundational themes, as the Laments bump into other expatriates as well: aimlessness versus rootedness, loyalty versus abandonment, disillusion versus hope, communication versus self-isolation, love in the face of life changes that so often kill it." Art Winslow

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"There’s a bittersweet cast to his viewpoint, and he doesn’t shrink from heartbreaking little details that reveal the characters’ vulnerabilities. … But there’s a hopefulness to the book, too, despite the calamities that befall the Laments." Amy Driscoll

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The Laments are more like the Itinerants, the Misfits or the Eternal Outsiders. … As the Laments roam all over the globe, experiencing their share of quirky epiphanies and freakish accidents, Mr. Hagen’s nimble, semi-autobiographical story is marred only by the fact that its punch lines seems to be missing." Janet Maslin

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"The Laments does bear a certain resemblance to John Irving’s hugely successful The World According to Garp—a story about a peculiar but appealing family, strange and violent things happening to children, people soldiering on despite life’s inherent unfairness. … As noted above, the novel reads easily and pleasantly, but once it ends you’re left with the sensation of having been on a long journey that never went anywhere in particular." Jonathan Yardley

San Jose Mercury News 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The Laments, especially Julia and Will, are so convincingly and often touchingly real that the novel sometimes feels like an animated cartoon into which human beings have wandered. … [The gratuitous, tear-jerking climax is] such a whopping violation of the novel’s overall tone that it feels like the desperate attempt of an author who doesn’t know how to find closure for his book." Charles Matthews

Critical Summary

Like John Irving and Anne Tyler’s novels, wacky characters navigate (or merely hang on) Hagen’s grand roller coaster of life. Certainly, the Laments experience the hilarious and the horrendous, from a kidnapping to a dismemberment, but life’s not as hopeless—nor as rootless—as their plight suggests. Through mostly fleshed-out characters, Hagen offers up a half coming-of-age novel, half-autobiography about colonialism’s aftermath, American society, family, love, and identity. Still, the novel’s diffuse themes lend it less substance than might be expected. And, though a commendable debut novel, critics ask if the adage "it’s the journey, not the destination," actually rings true for the Laments.

Further Reading

AS-WorldAccordingThe World According to Garp | John Irving (1978): "In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases"—including T.S. Garp, the bastard son of a famous feminist who introduces crazy characters and tragicomic, unforgettable experiences.

AS-AccidentalTouristThe Accidental Tourist | Anne Tyler (1985): When Macon and Sarah break up, the lonely Macon embarks on a journey that takes him to unexpected places—and new loves.

AS-CorrectionsThe Corrections | Jonathan Franzen (2001): This National Book Award winner takes us on a tour of the dysfunctional Lambert family, from Albert’s dementia to his wife’s worries and his three children’s troubles. Can they come together for one last Christmas at home?