A wayward wife, an Oedipally obsessed e-mail snoop, a pint-sized Civil War reenactor (oops, make that living historian), and a cheerfully oblivious cuckold comprise the Shaws of Chicago, the decidedly quirky characters of Jane Hamilton's fourth novel, Disobedience. An unlikely family to fall prey to the vagaries of modern life, the Shaws are consumed with clog dancing, early music, and the War Between the States. But they do possess a computer, and when 17-year-old Henry stumbles into his mother's e-mail account and epistolary evidence of her affair with a Ukrainian violinist, he becomes consumed with this glimpse into her life as a woman, not simply a mother.
To picture my mother a lover, I had at first to break her in my mind's eye, hold her over my knee, like a stick, bust her in two. When that was done, when I had changed her like that, I could see her in a different way. I could put her through the motions like a jointed puppet, all dancy in the limbs, loose, nothing to hold her up but me.
While his mother (whom he refers to variously as Mrs. Shaw, Beth, and her e-mail sobriquet, Liza38), dallies with her pen pal, whom she calls "the companion of my body, the guest of my heart," Henry experiences his own sexual awakening; his 13-year-old sister, Elvira, retreats into gender-bending historical fantasy; and their father remains determinedly absorbed in pedagogical responsibilities.
Ironically (and not completely convincingly) narrated by an adult Henry, Disobedience has a rollicking tone somewhat at odds with the somber prospects that loom for this family. A very worldly teenager in some ways, despite the hippie wholesomeness of his family, Henry tells his tale in abundant, almost flowery prose, imagining his mother's private life with elegiac fervor. As in her earlier A Map of the World, Jane Hamilton writes with affection and insight about the darker side of apparently ordinary Midwestern folks. --Victoria Jenkins
From Publishers Weekly
Credit Hamilton with courage, virtuosity and a remarkable ability to reflect inner lives. Her first novel, The Book of Ruth, was the unsparing story of a girl trapped in woeful circumstances; the protagonist of her second, The Map of the World, was a woman responsible for a child's death; the narrator of The Short History of a Prince was a gay man. Here she again explores family bonds and tensions, the demands of sexuality and the ethics of betrayal (not an oxymoron)Dthis time from the point of view of a teenager who discovers that his mother is having an affair. Henry Shaw is a high school senior when he intercepts e-mail messages between his mother, Beth, a musician and specialist in ancient music, and violin maker Richard Pollico. As he secretly eavesdrops on the liaison between "Liza38" and "Rpol," Henry's emotions, ranging from horror to fear of abandonment to rage to deep sadness, take on a new dimension when he himself falls in love with a girl he meets in summer camp. Meanwhile, his generally bemused and patient father, Kevin, a high school history teacher, seems unaware of Beth's infidelity, since he spends much of his time coaching Henry's rebellious sister, Elvira, 13, who is obsessed with her desire to join a Civil War reenactment disguised as a boy. A mirror image of A Short History's protagonist, Walter, at the same age, Elvira displays an unhappiness with her gender that causes stress in the Shaw's marriage. As she has amply demonstrated before, Hamilton knows the nuances of domestic relationships and the landscape of teenage uncertainty. Henry's voice is exactly right: he's a thoughtful, intelligent boy whose hormones are sending him confusing messages, and whose tendency is to mock both parents with typical teen sardonic humor. Henry's funny quips are actually quite sad, because they mask his sorrow at the severing of his close bond with his mother, and his discomfort at secretly being aware of her illicit passion. Beth's joyous reaction to physical love and her anguish at how her behavior, if revealed, might affect her family, are likewise rendered with compassion. In a miracle of empathy, Hamilton manages to grant psychological validity to all the members of this ordinary-seeming but emotionally distracted family, and to strike the reader's heart with her tender evocation of both human fallibility and our ability to recover from heartbreaking choices. Author tour. (Oct.)
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