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Girl in Landscape: A Novel Paperback – January 26, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

Science-fiction writers attempting coming-of-age stories have seldom risked showing the stew of loneliness, anger, and angst that really characterizes adolescence. Jonathan Lethem, on the other hand, avoids the plucky sidekick syndrome and instead gives us breathtakingly realistic Pella Marsh, a girl at that awful and wonderful crux in her life just before people start calling her "woman." Her broken family has just moved to a newly settled planet, with strange and passive natives and the decaying remnants of a great civilization. Something in the alien environment soon enables Pella to telepathically travel, hidden in the bodies of inconspicuous "household deer," into the homes of her fellow settlers. She inevitably discovers the seamy side of humanity--loss of innocence eloquently portrayed. Don't read this book on a dark day, as there's not very much sunshine in here. The entire planet is covered with ruins: ruined towns, ruined hopes and dreams, ruined families. For a rare dose of SF realism, this is a fantastic read, full of raw (but not explicit) sexuality and the unhappy hierarchies of childhood. Forget about cheerful settlers moving in next door to helpful indigenous life forms. This is what the planetary frontiers will be. No matter how far away from Earth we may travel, we'll still be the same dirty, disappointing, beautiful monsters. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

A surrealistic bildungsroman about a teenage girl unfolds among the ruins and frontier violence of a distant planet in Lethem's latest genre-bending exploration of science, landscape and the metaphysics of love and loss. As the novel opens, Pella Marsh, age 13, sets out from her subterranean home in a post-apocalyptic New York City for a final visit to Coney Island with her two younger brothers and her mother, Caitlin?all sealed in bodysuits to keep out the cancerous sun. Pella's father, Clement, has just been swept out of elective office in New York and has set his sights on the next political frontier: joining the first human settlers on the Planet of the Archbuilders. When Caitlin suddenly succumbs to a brain tumor, Clement whisks the grieving children by space ship to the faraway planet. Once the domain of a super-evolved alien species who used "viruses" to alter their ecosystem before abandoning it, the planet is now a hothouse landscape of ruined towers and refuse inhabited only by skittery, mouselike "household deer" and a few remaining Archbuilders?gentle, druidic creatures with furry, tendrilled, exoskeletal bodies and names like "Gelatinous Stand." Clement's mission, to forge a community that embraces the Archbuilders, puts him on a collision course with Ephram Nugent, a xenophobic homesteader who so closely resembles John Ford's John Wayne that one keeps expecting him to call Clement "Pilgrim." Lethem (As She Climbed Across the Table, 1997, etc.) affectingly chronicles Pella's tumultuous journey through puberty and loss and the knockabout society of children thrown together by their homesteading parents. As a result, this lyrical, often far-fetched meditation on the founding myths of the 21st century remains thoroughly rooted in an emotional world much closer to home. Author tour.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (January 26, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375703918
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375703911
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #963,578 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jonathan Lethem was born in New York and attended Bennington College.

He is the author of seven novels including Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, which was named Novel of the Year by Esquire and won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Salon Book Award, as well as the Macallan Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger.

He has also written two short story collections, a novella and a collection of essays, edited The Vintage Book of Amnesia, guest-edited The Year's Best Music Writing 2002, and was the founding fiction editor of Fence magazine.

His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, McSweeney's and many other periodicals.

He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Paula Gaffney on June 5, 2000
Format: Paperback
A copy of "Girl in Landscape" has been kicking around my house for a few months now. What compelled me to buy it escapes me. Especially since I tend to avoid coming-of-age stories. But there it was and there I was on a rainy Sunday afternoon. I got through the first quarter of the book and was getting ready to put it down when the story grabbed me. Jonathan Lethem has written a wonderfully engrossing novel set in a strange yet familiar setting. A strong case can be made comparing "Girl in Landscape" to many westerns, but what came to my mind was the old TV series "The Twilight Zone". Extraordinary outside influences driving an all to human story. But, like the Rod Serling classic, the world of the Archbuilders can be a dark and desolate place full of human weakness, frailty, bigotry, desire and emotion. This is a fine book worthy of a larger audience. I'm sorry I didn't read it sooner.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 2, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Jonathan Lethem has shown an amazing command of different genres, from the pulp "Gun, With Occasional Music" to the road trip "Amnesia Moon" to the twisted romance of "As She Climbed Across the Table." To call Lethem a Science Fiction Author is to do him a grave disservice by limiting the great scope of his small body of work.
"Girl with Landscape" is a of coming-of-age western set on a dreary planet with the ruins of an alien civilization. Pella Marsh, the central character, represents innocent youth, but also the strength of youth that most adults refuse to acknowledge.
The characters are all too real, especially in their bigotry and hatred, and the aliens are well-thought out, garnering are sympathy and occasionally our irritation and even disgust.
No lines are drawn clearly and no easy routes are taken in this novel. It's dreary and dark, but a brilliant work worth reading by anyone who likes good writing and a good story.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 30, 1999
Format: Paperback
"Gorgeous" is the adjective that kept coming to mind after reading this. A great hybrid of science-fiction, western and coming-of-age novels (a sort of post-bildungsroman story). I really cannot understand why other readers found the grown-ups in the novel two-dimensional. They were absolutely real, and Efram Nugent is a bigger-than-life character that reaches mythical status. One should thank Lethem for his ability to show how surrealistic the United States can be. And his absolutely perfect, terse style, that is getting better and better as he goes on! After this, one wonders what comes next... definitely one of the best novels of the 90s.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Laurence R. Hunt on April 16, 2007
Format: Paperback
Since Robert Heinlein's death, I have been looking for anyone who could sustain Heinlein's ability to project the reader into an imagined future and then to build sympathy with the characters. Lethem has the critical ability to establish empathy essentially with his every character, and few do this as easily as he. I have just completed Amnesia Moon, where Lethem tries on empathy with a clock and a potted plant as (metamorphosed) primary characters - and he makes even that work. Therefore, I found Pella, her family and friends, and the alien race in particular (not to mention the planetary ecosystem), to be so sympathetic that it was somewhat wrenching to put the novel down (the same was true of Amnesia Moon, though in that case, the characters were not intended to be quite so sympathetic). The last time I felt this way about a book was reading Heinlein (and in this case, Heinlein's earlier rather than later novels). This is perhaps the only book I have ever read about which I still experience literal pain due to the fact that there was so much more of the story to tell, and it is virtually certain that the sequel (or sequels as I imagined them) will go unwritten. (By the way, I found the analogy to Lolita to stretch credibility. I have read both books, and they are entirely different projects. At the most fundamental level, Lolita was about Humbert Humbert - not really about Lolita at all. This novel is about Pella - more akin to a project such as Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars, but with Lethem's mastery of empathetic character development.) In short, the single best science fiction book I have read since Heinlein.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Robert Carlberg on September 12, 2000
Format: Paperback
Lethem has attempted some very difficult goals in "Girl in Landscape," but by and large he succeeds admirably.
* Writing a believable 13-year old girl
* Creating another habitable planet
* Describing a non-human culture
* Moving between a dream state and waking reality without the seams showing
Lethem is so deft in his tightrope act that I found myself exclaiming "Wow" aloud several times while reading. His skill is palpable, but the book never comes off as flashy or bragging.
In fact, aside from a uncharacteristically weak dénouement, the book is nearly perfect.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 24, 1998
Format: Hardcover
This is what novel writing is all about, a truly imaginative exploration. Lethem may have been pegged as a science ficiton writer, but he is one of the most intriguing young American Fiction writers working today regardless of genre. "Girl in Landscape" should be one of those crossover type books the people who like to label writers are always so eager to discover.
At first I was struck by some similarities in a novel I read 2 years ago ("Straitjacket & Tie" by Eugene Stein), but as Lethem's story progresses the clash between Archbuilders and humans becomes less of an alien/Earthling struggle and more of a metaphor of all explorers in new worlds, both on land and in the heart. It is hard to ignore the essential American frontiersman and Native American analogies that Lethem's story evokes as well.
What makes this book so compelling is that we discover the Planet of the Archbuilders and its secrets as Pella does. Discovery is part of the novel's rich landscape. Pella - a growing teenager confilcted with herself and family - tries so desperately to find a new place in a new world that she can call her own and, as a result of the alien virus, floats out of her body becoming a literal outsider - sometimes looking in on herself. There is also the alien's discovery of the English language and the way the Archbuilders (particularly Hiding Kneel) make use of its poetry and even learn to make jokes.
This is a novel that speaks to our very humanity forcing us to look at how we treat each other, how we exclude others because of difference, how we all keep looking for a new home - a better place where we can finally belong.
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