two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-Palace CouncilStephen L. Carter, a Yale law professor, mixes well-to-do Harlemites, the history of the latter half of the 20th century, and a deadly conspiracy into his third novel. Some of the characters link Palace Council to his previous The Emperor of Ocean Park ( 4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2002) and New England White ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2007).

The Story: In 1950s New York, Edward Trotter Wesley, Jr., is a respected political writer and the author of several novels dealing with the upper classes of Black America. He has a (married) lover, Aurelia, and a cherished sister, June. Things get cooking when an explosion kills Aurelia’s husband. Who did it, and why? To make matters worse, June becomes entangled in an underground movement known as the "Jewel Agony," drops out of school, and simply disappears. As Edward and Aurelia leap from Kent State to Vietnam to Watergate, they realize, as their search for truth continues over two decades, that they may have been involved in the same conspiracy that led to Aurelia’s husband’s death. Worse, it may have ties to the underground group that June ran away with years ago.
Knopf. 514 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 0307266583

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Although the long story of Palace Council is propelled by loves, longings, intrigues and the murders of many of Eddie’s friends and rivals with connections in high places, what draws a reader along is the sharp commentary that Carter, a professor at Yale Law School, plants like runway lights along the way. … Carter’s vignettes of historic figures, including Hughes and Hoover, display both scholarship and imagination. But his portrait of Richard Nixon is pitch-perfect." Scott Simon

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Palace Council is a fat, delicious, page-turning trifecta: It’s old-fashioned family saga, a political tour of several tumultuous American decades and a murder mystery. … The result is a rich and deeply satisfying read, and I can say this even though I hated, hated the ending—no small irritant when you’ve read 500 pages." Michele Ross

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s a hokey tale, salted with predictable period references—how Eddie missed Woodstock is a mystery—but Palace Council is entertaining nonetheless. And Mr. Carter’s storytelling is underpinned by a masterly evocation of the world of wealthy and accomplished blacks in 20th-century America." Mark Bauerlein

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Working in a genre not much known for them, Carter manages some fine writerly effects … but more often he lets himself pluck familiar phrasing from the [thriller] form’s overheated type case. … Readers may enjoy bits of flirtatious caper dialogue between Eddie and Aurelia, but more often Carter works himself toward a harder boil than seems to come naturally." Thomas Mallon

Boston Globe 2 of 5 Stars
"[T]his book had the potential to establish … a rich and readable portrait of the black bourgeoisie in this country, and of the various forces that shaped and sought to exploit it. Instead, it concentrates all the worst aspects of Carter’s writing: a plodding pace that makes his long books feel even longer, and plots built around conspiracies that lack the complexity or clarity to support the duration of the read." Julie Wittes Schlack

Houston Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"What is original in all of Carter’s novels is his focus on the ‘darker nation,’ on the role played by African-Americans in recent American history and on the way the unique social institutions the black upper class constructed in the age of segregation were changed by the fractures in racial barriers. … But Palace Council keeps getting hung up on the intricacies of its rather improbable plot, which deals with a conspiracy based on, of all things, Milton’s Paradise Lost." Charles Matthews

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Since Palace Council is predicated on Eddie’s strategic importance in post–World War II American history, it therefore has plausibility problems from the very start. … The reader is asked to believe that Eddie stumbles on a secret so big, tantalizing and terrible that powerful people with droppable names will spend decades trying to pry it out of him." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

Oh critics, how ye disagree! Many found Palace Council overly long and complained that the "thriller" parts came and went at random. It’s also a bad sign in a genre that depends on flash/bang finales if the ending is considered weak. On a separate note, Edward and Aurelia witness more historical events than Forrest Gump—their adventures span from Harlem to Park Avenue, Los Alamos, and Saigon, and involve J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, and Langston Hughes, among others—and, covering two decades, these events can seem hectic. Reviewers consistently praised Carter, however, for his analysis of well-to-do Black America, a segment of the populace about whom hardly any mainstream novels have been written. He can be incredibly astute with his character analysis and political arguments as well. Though this novel isn’t concise or clever enough to redefine the thriller genre, Carter may have a bright future as the Henry James of 125th Street.