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Disobedience: A Novel Hardcover – October 17, 2000

3.4 out of 5 stars 95 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1st edition (October 17, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 038550117X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385501170
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (95 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,298,045 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jane Hamilton is the author of The Book of Ruth, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction, and A Map of the World, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and named one of the top ten books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Publishers Weekly, the Miami Herald, and People. Both The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World have been selections of Oprah's Book Club. Her following work, The Short History of a Prince, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 1998, her novel Disobedience was published in 2000, and her last novel When Madeline Was Young was a Washington Post Best Book of 2006. She lives in and writes in an orchard farmhouse in Wisconsin.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
The mother, pretending to be the faithful wife she's not, is having an affair, which threatens to divide the family into two.
The sister, pretending to be a soldier she's not, is obsessed with the Civil war, a war that threatened to divide our country into two.
The men in the family observe from the sidelines and wait, paralized, for the women they love to be exposed, for their own fates to be decided, for the delicate balance and unity of the family to return to it's norm. In the midst of looming consequences, both women must discover their true identities the hard way.
We see all this through the eyes of the adolescent son. On the verge of adulthood, he begins to see his parents' flaws in a new, truthful light. We listen to his thoughtful narrative, we observe his actions, and we are there to see how he functions (or doesn't) in his own flawed relationships with his own best friend and his girlfriend. We see his trust in women falter accordingly. We see him forced into a position of power that he doesn't seem to want.
This is not a book that is heavy on plot. It is about the ever-changing relationships and dynamics in a family full of bright, eccentric, intellectual/acedemic people. The novel has a surreal, voyeristic quality that allows the reader a prolonged look behind closed doors (and secret passwords) at a difficult year in the life of this remarkable family. It manages to beautifully weave in so much: war/political issues, gender/sexuality issues, Oedipal issues, identity issues, philosophy and reincarnation and... so much more as this story unfolds. It is about the fragility of the bonds that hold us together, and a son's harrowing realization of that fragility.
The characters are flawed only in the ways that real people are.
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Format: Paperback
The book opens with the narrator accidentally opening his mother's email account and discovering that she has just begun having an affair. And so the stage is set for a story about what happens in a family when one person has a secret and another person not only knows the secret but knows all the details of how the affair progresses (because he continues to read all the back and forth, almost daily, emails between his mother and her lover, plus the mother's emails confiding to her best friend). This story, for all its potential, is uninteresting and at times even dreary reading.
The book is written in the first person, narrated by the son Henry who at the time was 17. From the start I felt that the voice didn't sound quite right. A few pages into the book the reader learns that the story is being told "less than a decade later", which would make Henry in his mid-twenties. This made the voice a little more believable, but I still had trouble with it, I had the constant nagging sense that his writing style and observations just did not ring true. Then I wondered if in the end there would be a reason for the story being told ten years later, would we learn how these events affected Henry as an adult, or would it turn out that his printing of the emails would trigger some event years later?
There is so much that could have happened in this book, so much that I kept expecting to happen, but there just isn't enough here in the way of plot, and very little dialogue. Yes, there is some dialogue, but more often conversations are described. Much in the book is described, observed, thought about. It has a slow pace. In spite of all this, I started out enjoying this book and for the first 100 pages or so I had a hard time putting it down.
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Format: Paperback
Has Jane Hamilton missed the mark with "Disobedience"? This seems the debate raging, at quick glance, with fellow Amazon reviewers. Having read all of Hamilton's previous works, initially my concern was that she had. This is more a continuation of the reflective feel of "A Short History of a Prince" and less of the more plot-driven "The Book of Ruth" and "A Map of the World." This is where perhaps the "boring" criticism comes from, as Henry is hopelessly obsessed with his mother Beth's affair with a fellow musician. As with "Prince," Hamilton tells the story with a male narrator. Whether Henry comes out sounding more like a middle-aged woman than a young man is certainly debatable, but with Hamilton's writing skill I found it hard to complain.
Overall, "Disobedience" is a rich and thought-provoking work. First, there is the title. The easy leap to make is that the title refers to Beth's extramarital affair. But each character, in their own way, is "disobedient." Despite his mother's transgression, Henry's invasion of her e-mails would certainly not meet the "honor thy mother and father" criteria. Likewise, the sub-plot of Henry's sister's (Elvira) obsession with Civil War re-enactment only sets the stage for the many internal wars going on in the novel: a "typical" American family struggling to stay together, the battle of the sexes, and Henry's own struggle in becoming an adult. Certainly enough fodder for a book club, which Hamilton nicely skewers even after her own post-Oprah successes.
While Hamilton appears to be losing some of her rabid fan-base with her last two novels, in my humble opinion, "Disobedience" is only further evidence that Hamilton has only continued to make her mark as one of the top contemporary American authors.
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