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79 of 89 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
A couple different phrases come to mind when I try to summarize David Gilbert's new novel. One is "all dressed up with no place to go." & SONS is full of striking characters, carefully-crafted prose, and well-evoked (if familiar) scenes from urban life. It's the story of two families, the Dyers and the Toppings, and the way their lives have been shaped by one of the patriarchs, reclusive novelist A. N. Dyer. When his lifelong friend Charlie Topping dies, Dyer confronts his own mortality, inviting his two older sons to come home and bond with their teenage half-brother, his namesake. Jamie and Richard agree, but with agendas of their own. Meanwhile, Charlie Topping's son, his life in shambles, insinuates himself into the Dyers' reunion. The stage is set for... well, something, you would think. But instead of evolving, the narrative wanders down several dead ends before stumbling into an unearned climax. There are pieces of several promising novels here, but they're jumbled together in a way that undermines rather than reinforcing them. Fortunately, the other phrase that comes to mind is "magnificent failure." The in-the-moment experience is strong enough that the larger failings aren't fatal.

I mentioned several promising novels. One would focus on Philip Topping, son of the deceased, who narrates. He's ostensibly an unreliable narrator, his simultaneous affection for and resentment of the Dyers coloring his behavior. But, though Philip is just about unsympathetic enough for the purpose, Gilbert doesn't use the device of unreliability in an effective way. Unreliable narrators work best when they betray themselves, when the reader is made reasonably certain just how extensive their dishonesty is. Otherwise, what you have is a straightforward narrative with a not-very-interesting question mark over in the margins. There's one moment where Philip's truthfulness is key, but generally speaking it just doesn't matter, and the narration becomes one more free-floating literary device in a book full of them.

Another of those devices would be satire, which comes up mostly in reference to Richard and Jamie. Richard is a struggling screenwriter, and is hoping to get one of his original screenplays produced by securing for his backers the film rights to AMPERSAND, his father's most famous novel. This brings in scenes involving Hollywood executives and a famous young actor, all of whom behave exactly as you would expect. It's funny, but not especially necessary. Ditto Jamie's background in avant-garde filmmaking, in which radical activism is, as usual, mocked as mere liberal guilt. And, too, there's the sequence at a book launch party, in which the New York publishing scene proves exactly as ostentatious, bitter, gossipy, and lively as it has been in every other novel about writers. I sound more disappointed than I am here. These scenes are enjoyable, full of vertiginously long sentences and the kind of off-kilter metaphors of which modern literary fiction is made. But, for all the mockery, there's an air of urban sentimentality here, which is no more interesting than the small-town variety, and no more genuinely insightful.

This review is ballooning beyond my original intentions, and I haven't even mentioned Andy Dyer's teen angst over the 24-year-old who might become his girlfriend, or the brief interruption of all this male self-pity by a not-very-successful attempt to explore, via A. N. Dyer's ex-wife, why women put up with men like this. Nor have I alluded to the bizarre plot point that emerges about halfway through, which is probably meant to be resonant or ironic but just feels weird and unnecessary, literalizing a metaphor that was fine ~as~ a metaphor. But never mind all that. The heart of & SONS is its interest in awkward father-son relationships, and this is where the novel falls most thoroughly flat. Thoughtful readers will already understand that fathers and sons often have difficulty communicating, and will look for an especially vivid portrait of that reality. But Gilbert never really creates the illusion that the sons in this novel have much to do with their fathers, for better or for worse. Richard, Jamie, and Andy are caught up in their own desires and dramas, and barely interact with A. N. Dyer at all. That might be the point, but what their few scenes together suggest is not a dramatically-interesting disconnect, but benign indifference. There's something real there, and I can't deny a certain pathos in the father's unsuccessful attempts to bond with his sons after a lifetime of putting his identity as a writer above his family, but this isn't enough to sustain a novel, especially one as rambling as & SONS.

As is too often the case with sprawling fiction, the welter of subplots is resolved by a sudden, dramatic turn of events that feels unbearably contrived. The scenes that follow are easily the novel's weakest, not only because they depend on heavy-handed plotting, but because they require an emotional investment in the father-son bond that hasn't been elicited by what came before. Instead of contemplating the beauty of it all, I was thinking about how tired I am of books in which neurotic, self-pitying men are set up as tragic figures simply because they're aware how pathetic they are. That's a harsh response, not least because & SONS is far from the worst offender in that department. But I can't deny that I find it uneven and unsuccessful. There's a lot to admire-- I still haven't touched on A. N. Dyer's fictional oeuvre, with its parallels to other twentieth-century fiction and to the events of the novel itself. But such things are trappings, and underneath the gloss and style, this isn't a wise or a profound enough novel. You should read it anyway, if books like appeals to you; you may well like it better than I did, and even if you don't, it's a failure more interesting than many lesser successes.
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33 of 39 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon August 6, 2013
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
David Gilbert's ambitious & SONS is one of those books that will as easily garner 5 stars as one. There's that much to like -- and seriously wonder about. Let's start with the problematic aspects so we can finish on a high note. While the book centers on an aging, J.D. Salingeresque writer named Andrew (A.N.) Dyer and his three sons, it is supposedly narrated by Philip Topping, son of Andrew's best pal Charlie, whose funeral opens the book. Seems innocent enough, but the point-of-view is convoluted. Though he plays a minor role in the 400+ page book, Philip seems to be an omniscient narrator for most of the scenes he is not privy too.

Then, when he's on hand, he's more like a 1st-person POV narrator, a Nick Carraway sort, if you will. Most damning of all, he's a bit creepy in his hero worship of Andrew Dyer and in his hanging around in general. He asks if he can stay at the Dyer home after his dad's funeral and, thanks to the awkward situation, is granted permission even though no one but him took the offer seriously. I'm left to wonder why Philip was included in the first place. The book would have done as well -- or better -- without him.

Another deficiency is Gilbert's tendency to overwrite. There's no digression he's willing to forgo, no back story he's willing to pass on. Instead, he indulges himself, sometimes for dozens of meandering pages. The reader gets a bit lost, brushes back the spider webs, and wonders aloud, "Why am I here again?"

All that said, the book has its merits. First and foremost, Gilbert is an idea man and can grace the page was some eloquent sentences at times -- the kind you stop, reread, and say, "Wish I thought of that." In these moments, you seem willing to forgive the self-indulgence of his digressions because, well, a writer's writer doesn't come along every day.

The book is ambitious, too, which deserves praise for its willingness to take a risk, if nothing else. Gilbert does not play it safe, but instead takes the big leap into the giant thematic miasma we call father-son love-hate relationships, in all their messy glory. There's the patriarch Andrew, of course, and his eldest sons, recovering addict Richard and creative Peter Pan-like Jamie. And then there's the third son, Andy -- supposedly the product of an ill-advised fling, but actually the product of an even more ill-advised plot twist revealed at the halfway point. Yep, it's a bit of an eye-roller and probably as gratuitous as the over-the-Topping narrator, but still, Andrew's special love for Andy has its moments and puts the reader in a more forgiving mood.

Overall, a march through some word-count agony and some word-smithing ecstasy. Some readers will see more of one than the other -- thus the critical gaps in appraisals. It's all about your reading DNA and what you bring to the table, actually. For my part, I'll acknowledge both and split the difference with a middle road assessment.
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48 of 62 people found the following review helpful
on July 25, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
Like many contemporary novelists, "& Sons" is an attempt to capture many of the feelings we want out of literature. While I had not read any of his other works, it is apparent that author David Gilbert is familiar with larger expectations for complex works by interweaving multiple viewpoints, dealing with darker themes in familial relationships, and throwing in the unexpected. In terms of style and tone, Gilbert does come across as different, unique and fresh.

However, Gilbert's novel has a few detractors that make it have less of a broad appeal. For the most part it is a study of relationships between reclusive, privileged, New Yorker fathers and sons. While I understand the romance with the New York City life, and reflections of a Woody Allen view of the city, I still am not sure how relatable these characters are on the whole. Adding to the problem, is the bouncing weave of storylines and viewpoints that at times is hard to follow, especially when the father is named Andrew, and the son is called Andy. To confuse matters more, Gilbert drops in copies of handwritten letters that are often hard to read but essential in terms of characters reacting to these letters, and sections of the fictional author A.N. Dyer's novels.

As well, the novel comes across to the reader as trying too hard. In the course of building this reclusive author's character, Dyer's biggest classical piece of literature is called "Ampersand" and is constantly compared to "Catcher in the Rye." Instead of feeling like a natural comparison, the number of times this is mentioned make it instead feel like that one friend who has gotten to meet a few B-list celebrities, and constantly namedrops at the most casual of dinner parties. Add to this a very preposterous plot twist that is played off as reality, and it feels like the whole novel unravels. While the mildly surprising revelation near the end and the very surprising ending work much better, the middle plot twist feels like the biggest negative and turn that part of the novel into that movie that is hilarious when it wasn't trying to be funny at all.

While the tone and style are interesting, I found the whole novel didn't live up to the hype. Probably a semi-interesting read for some, but definitely not what I would consider to be an enduring classic.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon September 9, 2013
Format: Hardcover
We meet Philip at the funeral of his father, Charlie Topping. Also present is Charlie's childhood friend, the renowned novelist A.N. Dyer, now nearing the age of eighty. Philip gives us lengthy introductions to A.N.'s older sons: recovering miscreant Richard, a screenwriter noticed in Hollywood only because of his family name; and stoner Jamie, whose videos (including daily shots of a former girlfriend while she was dying and after her death) reflect his "almost incandescent urge for the dreadful thing." Philip was the fifth grade teacher of A.N.'s third son, Andy, whose existence came as a surprise to A.N.'s wife and prompted a divorce. At seventeen, Andy is significantly younger than his middle-aged brothers. Andy views his famous father as annoyingly needy while his older brothers have always thought A.N. to be so distant as to approach nonexistence.

Philip provides the novel's narrative framework, telling each son's story, occasionally A.N.'s, and sometimes his own. Philip has current knowledge of the sons because, needing a place to live after his indiscretions cause him to lose his job, he has accepted A.N.'s offer to take up temporary residence in A.N.'s home. A.N. is dying (or perhaps it's just wishful thinking on his part) and the occasion of his impending death gives him reason to insist that his three sons come together. The family gathering will give A.N. a chance to meet Richard's teenage grandchildren, and Richard a chance to meet Andy, for the first time. It also gives A.N. a chance to reveal an improbable secret to his older sons. As A.N.'s ex-wife acidly tells him, the secret "takes narcissism to a whole new level, even for you."

We learn about A.N. Dyer through his own eyes (he describes himself as a "self-pitying writer" who is "easily overwhelmed by the basics of how to live") and those of others, but also through the books he wrote, books that echo his own life. The lead character in Tiro's Corruption has an acerbic view of anyone who lives beyond the boundaries of Manhattan, while Dyer's alter-ego in Eastern Time is a "secret pervert" (albeit a tame one). When A.N. advises Andy not to be "a ghost haunting your own life," he seems to be teaching a lesson learned by the protagonist in The Bend of Light, a "tin man" with an illusory heart who dies alone. Ampersand, A.N.'s celebrated novel about the cruelty of privileged adolescents, imparts critical facts about A.N.'s friendship with Charlie Topping. The use of books within a book to shed light upon A.N. is a clever device that will make & Sons linger in my memory.

To a small extent, & Sons is a typical New York literary novel, the kind that skewers the pretentious while itself being a bit pretentious. A scene depicting a snobbish book party is familiar, but it is enlivened by the attendance of anti-snobs Andy and Emmett (Richard's son), a pair of ultra-cool teenagers who add a healthy dose of comedy to the novel's mix. The novel's best comic moment, however, comes from poor A.N.'s confusion (and mortification) when he appears to meet his best known fictional character at the same party.

More importantly, and as the title implies, & Sons is about fathers and sons, about the distance that grows between them until it is impossible to "reach across the divide." Philip comes to understand his father only in death -- and that (the novel seems to say) is the only time a life can be truly understood. There are aspects of the way Philip tells this story (is he a reliable narrator?) that I found troubling, and an out-of-the-blue event near the novel's end seemed like a bad choice, but it does lead to some poignant moments in the closing pages. Unlike Ampersand, & Sons is never "emotionally claustrophobic" but neither is it melodramatic. While you wouldn't expect a novel about people's lives to wrap up neatly -- because complex lives never do -- & Sons at least ends on a moving and satisfying note. I would give & Sons 4 1/2 stars if I could.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 8, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
"Jeanie Spokes was a full-fledged adult while Andy Dyer hovered around 83 percent in terms of development and experience and areas of skin without acne and even grades, which could ruin his chances for Yale and screw up his equivalency with this Columbia grad, dooming whatever outside chance he had beyond a mere online flirtation." This sentence appears early on in the novel and sets the tone for a really remarkable piece of fiction. You just have to love a rich kid like this with a father old enough to be his grandfather--plus--because the old man is one of the country's most beloved novelists. A little more as Andy, now on his last cigarette, waiting outside on the church steps for a very late (and never to show up) 24-year-od Jeanie, "wondered if Jesus was once a supreme embarrassment to his Father, this hippie carpenter who ran around with the freak crowd until finally he gave up on his dreams and stepped into the family business, probably to his mother's regret."
Okay, is that not enough to make you order the book right now? And a few for friends while you are at it?

Inside that church, filled, are the mourners and friends of Charles Henry Topping, his body not in the expensive coffin that his second wife has insisted upon--he has been cremated--and bowed into a comma near the front is A. N Dyer (AND!), the friend by boyhood on of the dead man. A. N Dyer has published many books, the most famous nearly fifty years before, "Ampersand," a biting satire about Exeter, much more biting than, say, "A Separate Peace." But the elderly novelist has had to resort to Googling how to write an appropriate send-off speech for his old friend. Who knew that Emma Norbert was out there in cyberspace ready and not that able--she has spelling issues--to help poor old A. N.

So this is a novel within a novel. And our little 17-year-old buddy, Andy, is well, what else but an updated Holden Caulfield although without the first-person narrative voice. Andy discovers that the old guy actually has an email account. So he asks him: "Have you heard of instant messaging? My God, do you text? Blog? Facebook? Tweet and Tumble and Flickr? Pittypat? (I made that last one up.) A." I include this so you will believe me when I saw 17-year-old, lard-in- the-belly, acned-on-the-face, sex-on-the-brain, Exeter-hating Andy is going to provide you, the reader, with a Holden-type experience. And let's face it, J. D. Salinger did a mighty fine job with that character just as David Gilbert has done with this one and the rest. But of course it turns out it is not his father at all who is writing the emails from this account. And that's how Jeanie Spokes makes her way into Andy's fantasies.

The novel is told in first person by the second son of the now-dead Charles Henry Topping, Philip, recently separated from his wife. He has been a fifth grade teacher, but something has happened. So after the funeral, he hails a cab for his father's old friend and goes off with him, giving credence to the first-person narrative voice that I find very believable. "I would spend a week under A. N Dyer's roof, which is how I became a witness, the primary witness despite some feuding claims, to everything that happened."

And with that he launches into the everything. This is a must-read book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 23, 2013
Format: Hardcover
David Gilbert's ambitious novel, & Sons, explores big ideas within the intimate, often claustrophobic confines of interpersonal relationships--between family members, friends, and lovers (more or less in that order), all rotating in varying aspects around a reclusive author of considerable notoriety, now scrambling to put his affairs in order. Much has been made of the particulars of the story's mise-en-scène: the Manhattan (and more specifically, the Upper East Side) of money (mostly old, or at least old enough), educational privilege (the most exclusive prep schools, and the ivy league universities they feed), power (in various forms, lurking on the periphery of the insular worlds the central characters move within), influence, and professional accomplishment--in short, the elements of the accepted forms of pedigree in arenas where pedigree is relentlessly measured and prized above everything. But in the end, the novel's setting is largely arbitrary, one backdrop among a broad spectrum of possibilities against which Gilbert examines the universal cross-currents at work in any environment where discrepancies in relative power, privilege, achievement, and desire abound. To the extent that the book's central characters attempt to navigate these geographies through their efforts to communicate--presented here as a task of Sisyphean proportions--they struggle, and more often than not, fail. They don't know how to communicate, and not because they're categorically inept, but because the act itself is inherently difficult--in direct proportion to the intimacy of the message--the most difficult activity people engage in, even when the participants in the exchange speak the idiosyncratic language of shared experience. This struggle is compounded for characters awash in ambivalence they don't know how to interpret, and nowhere is this more evident than in the person of Philip Topping, the narrator who disingenuously places himself on the margins of the story, but insinuates himself everywhere, in virtually everything that happens. Remove the decorative façade, and the stories of these figures become imminently recognizable to one degree or another, regardless of one's background or circumstance.

The book's themes, and the characters inhabiting them, find carriage in Gilbert's exceptional prose: always precise, and often sublime, at once economical and extremely robust, his tropes--the similes, metaphors, and analogies that embellish each page and leverage the imagery and self-referential language of popular culture--lend the text a density that far exceeds its actual word count. He can use a few sentences (and often does) to render an image that a lesser writer might require a page or more to flesh out. The book is insightful, poignant, and entertaining--it works on so many levels. And it not only holds up under subsequent readings, it soars to greater heights. One of the most satisfying reading experiences I've had.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 7, 2013
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
When I was in my 20s, post-college but still young, I went on a Cheever and Updike kick. I was riveted by these characters, so unlike those people in my Midwestern small town -- the New York-ness of them, the cleverness, the biting language, the gorgeously sophisticated wrecks they made of their lives.

And now comes "& Sons," which transported me back into that place -- not an aping of Cheever or Updike, or even an homage, but something of a predecessor. It's funny and sad and sharp, and I enjoyed it very much.

The tale of the Salingeresque (though more prolific) author A.N. Dyer, his three sons, and the son of his erstwhile best friend, "& Sons" has a lot of pieces in motion, which can be a little challenging to keep straight, but hey, that's how life is, yes? The narrative isn't strictly linear, but it's not too hard to keep your moorings as you jolt through these scenes of mortality, celebrity, and messy familial love. The characters are well-drawn, and there are multiple great set-pieces, particularly a tony book-release party at the Frick museum where the novelist du jour, various hangers-on, and the members of the Dyer clan lurch through some very funny social rituals.

One unexpected plot twist mid-book provides some surrealist spice, and the sense of impending doom is amply foreshadowed though in the end, I didn't at all see it playing out the way it did. It's been a long time since a book has surprised me in that way.

I loved this novel. It lives up to all the hype, and that's saying something.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
"& Sons," by David Gilbert, is certainly worth all the fuss that critics have made about it. It is an impressive debut, unquestionably one of the finest I've read this year. The novel is a massive sprawling homage to the great American literary novel; a penetrating psychological dissection of male-centered, familial and familial-like relationships; a strange, unsettling--almost freakish--study of a literary idol and one of his more fanatic admirers; and perhaps best of all, an artifice through which the author showcases his extraordinary literary talents. Personally, I had a smile on my face through the entire book. I found literary delights within almost every paragraph and surprise twists in time, reference, and plot direction on almost every page. I never knew from one paragraph to the next where this book was taking me and after a while, I didn't care. I abandoned myself to the book's intellectual joy ride and thankfully, it never let me down.

So what about the plot? Well, there is one, and it is a good subtle character-driven plot that gets better as the story draws to its conclusion, but this is a book primarily about the personal struggles that shape lives and the incredible complexity of important interpersonal family and family-like relationships. The bulk of the content is there to build character and provide psychological depth and understanding about these relationships. It's important not to skip over what may seem to be many digressive paragraphs in pursuit of what you may think is the plot; you'll miss too much. And you need to pay close attention to the book within the book (recognizable by being printed in a different typeface), because knowing that plot is essential to figuring out what is happening in the main plot. Astonishingly, in the end, the author is able to pull everything together and all that detail suddenly makes sense and supports the whole. It's brilliant, and a good ending to a terrific book. You leave the book not pondering the plot, but thinking about the book's characters, particularly the intricate relationship dynamics that have shaped their lives.

Many reviewers mention difficulties they have with Phillip Topping as the book's narrator. David Gilbert constructs Phillip as both a first-person narrator and an omniscient third-person reporter of all that takes place outside his own experience. That's a perplexing combination! Some reviewers resolve the issue by calling him an "unreliable narrator," and indeed, if Phillip were real, that is exactly what he would be. But in a literary sense, to call Phillip an "unreliable narrator" misses the point. If that were so, then all authors would be "unreliable narrators." This is a book about literary writers, the art of creating fiction, and the price that many authors pay for pursuing this demanding and difficult craft. By making Phillip both a first- and third-person omniscient narrator, the author (David Gilbert) is drawing attention to the fact that this is fiction. None of the characters are real no matter how real they seem...and in Gilbert's able hands these characters pop off the page and virtually shake your hand. No, this is all about fiction, the art of fiction, and the creation of "real" lives through words. As a literary construct, to be a true "unreliable narrator," it requires that something significant the narrator said was incorrect...that the narrator cannot be trusted to tell the truth. But that is not what happens in this book. We can trust Phillip's omniscient view of his characters because Phillip is writing fiction...and then there is that other layer where we know that David Gilbert is the real author who created Phillip and all Phillip's characters. It's a book with many layers of fictional reality and the author wants you to not lose sight of this important fact. Remember it is a book about writing and authors and fiction.

This is a remarkable book full of fascinating characters and their emotional struggles. The book is not for everyone. But for the right reader--typically those who read a lot of literary fiction--this work can be tons of fun. If that fits you, don't miss it.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
A.N. Dyer, the famous, reclusive author, has agreed to give the eulogy at the funeral of his best friend, Charles Topping. Topping's son, Philip, is our narrator. While he delves into the lives of the Dyer family, his story is always tinged with his enmeshment in their lives. He has a secret belief that he belongs in that family. Having grown up with the sons, he has had ample opportunity to fantasize on the subject. As the book progresses, we become aware of the many ways his life has unraveled.

In an "ashes to ashes moment", the great man has summoned his family home. Philip, who was invited in a moment of impulse was invited to stay at their home, is on hand. Richard lives in LA where he works with addicts having been sober for many years. He has made a near religion of cutting himself away from his father. While he is drawn to writing screen plays, he denies other paternal influences, refusing the money on offer. Jamie is naturally beautiful golden boy, who nonetheless has rejected his gifts to travel the world to be the unblinking eye of the horror which exists outside his privileged childhood.m finally, Andy, who is eighteen, struggles at the forefront with his own identity. He is the son of Dyer's second wife, and the object of Dyer's compulsive drive to be a good father this time.

The novel is executed within the unreliable narrator. Within the discourse, we learn that the family has served to provide material for many of Dyer's novels. While Dyer is a great, celebrates, cult author; this presence can be unnerving. Phillip mines the books to find a portrait of his father. Richard had unwittingly provided the adolescent yearnings of another. Most galling to Richard is the material gleaned by his father from his journals. Wives and friends have all taken a turn in the wealthy cast of characters.

The question remains if Dyer can compose a family with his sons in these closing chapters of his life. Philip, who is the one person who wants to belong to the family without reservations, struggles to keep his observations true. This book progresses in a deeply, self conscious literary tone. This is a family built on books. Quotes from Dyer's books, and the authors who inspired them all, often provide the narrative content of the inner lives of these characters.. I found the prose to be seductive in its weaving of entanglements. Character motivations are subtley developed as each person is revealed in his secret fears and inner demons. If, as I believe, books are the transport to other minds, how do the characters recognizing themselves within a work of fiction compose their own thoughts? I think this author succeeds in weaving this story making this book one that I would recommend.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 21, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Disappointing that many chose this as a favorite book -- which is why I bought it -- only to find myself swamped in details in
a story that moved along sluggishly. It was a great idea - the late life of a successful but miserable writer, and his 3 sons. I actually liked some of the characterizations but found it hard to follow who was who for throughout the book. I hung in, and it was long. I could't wait to finish it and let it go.
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