three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
user_rating: 
0

A-The Soul ThiefNathaniel Mason is a graduate student in Buffalo, New York, in 1973 when he first encounters Jerome Coolberg, a character who is alternately described as empty and profound. Besides putting the make on a mutual love interest, Coolberg starts to appropriate Mason’s identity, telling stories pulled from his past and "borrowing" personal items so he can write a character based on Mason into his novel (as the devil, no less). The consequences of Coolberg’s psychological breaking and entering put Mason’s fragile identity at even greater risk, but we must wait for the second half of the novel, set 30 years later, to discover the full significance of the soul thief’s crime.
Pantheon. 224 pages. $20. ISBN: 0375422528

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"The talented Mr. Baxter is not afraid to frustrate our dramatic expectations, even knowing that our longing to know the characters more intimately will not go away. … [Baxter] knows that we write about what keeps us up at night, that a writer gets to inhabit many lives, and that he who tells the story makes the meaning." John Dufresne

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Baxter’s adept at circling us slowly around the mirror, then thrusting us suddenly in front of it, demanding that we acknowledge ourselves in it. He brings us to a boil slowly, reaching a crisis point—and a pyrotechnical twist at the book’s end—without our seeing it coming." Jesse Nathan

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[I]t’s exceedingly rare to come across writing as seamless and engrossing as Charles Baxter’s. Even when this wizard aims to exasperate you, as he does in his newest novel, his voice casts a dreamy spell of suspended animation." Tricia Springstubb

Denver Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It is impossible to stop wondering where reality fits in the story that unfolds, and the way Baxter resolves the question will work for some readers and not for others. … Ultimately, it’s hard to argue with a book filled with prose so toothsome it is tempting to read it aloud, just for the taste of the words, with a work that keeps you unflaggingly engaged and with one that makes you want to start re-reading once it is done." Robin Vidimos

Rocky Mountain News 3 of 5 Stars
"Baxter’s ethereal writing and witty mockery of academic intelligentsia reinforce his decidedly creepy story of identity theft. This novel strongly recalls Patricia Highsmith’s sordid tales about the sociopathic Tom Ripley." Clayton Moore

Houston Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The Soul Thief feels to me as if it could have worked more successfully as an extended short story. … Baxter’s poetic writing, his knowing eye, his gift of revealing truths in the quietest, most authentic details can’t make up for the need for a richer fleshing-out of emotion and character." Lisa Jennifer Selzman

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[I]t saddens me to report that the climax is a hackneyed bit of metafictional whimsy, which more or less sinks the novel. … To create a work like this one, with its flaws and scattered sublimities alike—well, it takes a thief." James Marcus

Critical Summary

Charles Baxter’s ability to play with his own identity consistently impresses reviewers. Author of the 2000 National Book Award finalist Feast of Love, he has proved adept as a novelist and short story writer, as well as an inventor of forms somewhere in between. The Soul Thief is one such example. It is almost short enough to be a novella, yet it spans 30 years. Its plot hinges on a short story kind of "twist," yet its characters are intriguing enough to have novels to themselves. Critics’ reactions depended on how well they tolerated this inventiveness. Those who enjoyed it found The Soul Thief a compelling investigation into how identities are lost and found over a lifetime. Those who were less patient with Baxter’s narrative devices were also intrigued by the theme of identity, but they left the novel feeling robbed of solid characters.