three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
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0

A-The Sorrows of an AmericanSiri Hustvedt, also a poet and essayist married to novelist Paul Auster, explores in her fourth novel how the past takes hold of the present.

The Story: Psychoanalyst Erik Davidsen has enough problems. Recently divorced, he lives alone in his New York apartment, suffering with a self-diagnosed case of anhedonia, the inability to experience joy. But things get more complicated when he and his sister discover a letter indicating that their late father may have been involved in a mysterious death. Then, when Erik lets a room on his first floor, he finds himself falling for his tenant, a Jamaican immigrant single-mother whose life is alternately distant and dangerous. Erik’s encounters with her and other characters lead to a series of reflections on loss, memory, and our uncertain ability to hold on to the past.
Henry Holt. 306 pages. $25. ISBN: 0805079084

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite everything about The Sorrows of an American that makes it sound repellent, this is one of the most profound and absorbing books I’ve read in a long time. Hustvedt pushes hard on what a novel can do and what a reader can absorb, but once you fall into this captivating story, the experience will make you feel alternately inadequate and brilliant—and finally deeply grateful." Ron Charles

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"With its lengthy explorations of psychoanalysis, the influence of dreams and the mechanics and messiness of art, The Sorrows of an American could have collapsed into a self-conscious postmodern mess had it not been written by the clear-eyed Siri Hustvedt. … The Sorrows of an American succeeds as a character-driven story as well as a fountain of provocative ideas." Connie Ogle

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Hustvedt’s descriptions of the immigrant experience and the Minnesota landscape have a spare Scandinavian elegance, while her account of the life of a Brooklyn psychoanalyst feels quietly authentic. … [A]gain she proves herself a writer deftly able to weave intricate ideas into an intriguing plot." Sylvia Brownrigg

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Sorrows of an American … seems a little old-fashioned in its sources of drama and tension. Peopled with intellectuals, authors, psychoanalysts and their patients and set in TriBeCa and Brooklyn, it seems a precious diorama, like something you might see in the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History. And yet, and yet, the pages turn themselves." Susan Salter Reynolds

Minneapolis Star-Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The answers to our unresolved questions, Davidsen—and, by extension, Hustvedt—suggests, are both simpler (dramatically) and more complex (psychologically) than we allow ourselves to imagine. Which isn’t to say that plot is completely abandoned in Hustvedt’s elegant meditation on familial grief, memory and imagination." Ethan Rutherford

Chicago Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Hustvedt piles sorrow upon sorrow, trauma upon trauma, loss upon loss. … The notion of fragmented identity pervades Erik’s story, yet he seeks a stable sense of self, a solidity as strong as the one that tied Lars to his native Minnesota." Sarah F. Gold

Critical Summary

Critics were impressed by Hustvedt’s last novel, What I Loved (2003), and enjoyed The Sorrows of an American for the same reasons. The author creates cerebral, educated characters and allows them to fully express themselves without seeming preachy or stuffy. Her novels explore psychological themes while also keeping the reader’s attention with engaging (if complicated) plots. While a few reviewers thought that The Sorrows of an American seems too similar to Hustvedt’s last book, that the secrets Erik and his sister pursue lack drama, and that many of the characters remain too remote, most found it to be thoroughly original. The novel is also unusual in that it has no chapter breaks. Because Hustvedt’s characters are also likely to quote philosophers and ruminate on the nature of memory, this might not be the best book to take to the beach.