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on May 6, 2012
Attenberg's first novel makes a sharp right turn between each of its three parts. The book opens with Jarvis Miller enduring life as a "half-widow," her husband on life support for all of six years, his fame (and value) as a painter increasing with every coma-induced minute. Then, unexpectedly, a long-disguised secret is revealed in a second storyline that is vaguely reminiscent of Penelope Lively's "The Photograph" (although it should be said immediately that Attenberg's characters have more, well, character, and "The Kept Man" is the better novel for it). The plot veers yet again, as the drama draws further inspiration from yesterday's headlines--particularly, and most obviously, the Terri Schiavo story.

For most of the book, what could have been a maudlin Lifetime TV movie instead resembles a sharp-witted indie feature film (I can easily imagine Parker Posey in the lead role). Attenberg ramps things up with a gram or two of the diluted "Diet Coke" you might find in the backroom of a seedy Brooklyn bar, and the author's offbeat, modish humor straddles an uneasy balance between irreverent and compassionate. "I was never the party guest they anticipated . . . because my husband was in a coma. My antics were not even interesting in a performance-art kind of way, no Courtney Love hugging the punk hippies around the candle-strewn memorials, and then a year later bouncing back to flash her designer-clad augmented breasts at anyone who would look." Even the droll melancholy of Jarvis's moods evokes the Williamsburg faux-hipster scene.

Yet, for all its scenester cred, "The Kept Man" stays true to its central concern: the impossible choices presented to its heroine. "The kids, the almost-adults, who own these streets in their carefully chosen ensembles," along with the "art shows and moving sales and drunken parties," are indeed "ephemera, all of it"; once Jarvis draws back the curtain, she finds "family" in all its many messy, unpredictable, and spontaneous variety. And that family takes unexpected forms: the three stay-at-home husbands who befriend her at the local laundromat and who, one by one, unveil their own family tensions; the livery driver who takes Jarvis weekly to the nursing home; the friends and colleagues and even the fundamentalist Christian family of her partly departed husband who alternately dismay and sustain her.

The third section manages to avoid the sandtraps of sentiment one might anticipate from a book about a husband in a coma--until the end, when Lifetime seems to have picked up the film from the cash-strapped indie director and insisted on a feel-good ending. The jaded streets of Williamsburg are traded in for the sunny skies of Hollywood. The climax strains belief, the epilogue ties up everything a little too neatly and idealistically, and Jarvis's extended "family" suddenly behaves how we all wish we would conduct ourselves after a particularly nasty scuffle. Given the cynicism and stoicism of Attenberg's prose up to this point, the final pages of this otherwise gritty and absorbing novel seem as out of place as the neighborhood's new high-rise buildings.
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on April 11, 2010
I've heard Jami Attenberg read a number of times; from the stuff she's already published, things she's working on, and stand-alone pieces, I could tell that this is the sort of person who takes her writing very seriously and does it well.

It was easy to put myself in her hands as I read "The Kept Man," and I trusted her writer's voice to take us where we needed to go. She wasn't afraid to make her protagonist someone who could be unlikable, and do stupid things; just like a real person. Jarvis is a difficult person, but that stands to reason, because she was married to a great, eccentric artist who was no angel himself. They fit together because of who they were and who they weren't.

Attenberg does a great job in merging the character's internal journey with the changes in her real landscape: the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn changing from artistic to gentrified over the course of weeks, months, and seasons. You can almost smell New York, and the specific identity of that particular Brooklyn neighborhood and the people in it. (Hipsters...and the people who got there before them).

The supporting characters are also well-drawn, from the nurses at the long-term care center where Jarvis's husband rests in a coma to Missy, the car service driver who becomes the best friend Jarvis has, the book feels real and true, and soemtimes that means it's not pretty. But it's good.
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on January 22, 2008
THE KEPT MAN is a beautiful book about love and loss, and how people find themselves stuck and immobile. Attenberg nails modern day Brooklyn, the concept of the proxy urban family, and the art world, and sucks you right in with her stunning prose. Her narrator is compelling and wonderfully flawed and complex, and I read late into the night, unable to put the book down. HIGHLY RECOMMEND!
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on October 12, 2015
In reading other reviews, I see that readers disagree on the believability of the main character. To those that find her unbelievable, I say "lucky you," as you have never found yourself in the painfully sweet position of loving someone so much that they become the center of your world and you lose yourself to that relationship. This character, Jarvis, was already broken and afloat with no anchor and struggling to find meaning in her life when she met Martin. He saw her as beautiful and lovable, and she began to see herself through his eyes. And her life with him became all about him, about being his wife, HIS wife. She who had never trusted anyone other than her mother, trusted Martin and their relationship, and gave into that trust and let the relationship become her identify without noticing. She, who prided herself on being different, being edgy, being off center, became totally centered in the relationship, and then poof - it disappeared. I've been there and done that, and was walking around in shock for a couple of years, going through the motions of being alive and well, but sleepwalking through life. So I found the story riveting and believable and identified with Jarvis as she begins to grasp the notion that she must save herself by giving up the glorious self identify she had loved being Martin's wife. When you are blown out of your life and have to start over with no idea how to do it, it is going to be slow going and painful. Jarvis had spent six years hanging on, loving Martin, wishing so much for her former life to return, but knowing it never would. Her loneliness was palpable, and she put all of her effort into hiding that on the rare occasions when she left her apartment. I loved the "kept men" club guys at the laundry mat that she clumsily attempted to make friends with, all of them as surprised as she is to find themselves on the outside looking in. As she became accepted by them, she began to gain just a tiny bit of confidence in herself, a baby step forward, but a monumental one. I loved her baby steps, her reaction to the box of photographs, her courage to move from her beloved old life into a scary new one. I will definitely look for more Jane Attenberg books.
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VINE VOICEon December 5, 2008
As the first sentence of Jami Attenberg's prologue memorably notes, Jarvis Miller has been waiting for her husband to die for six years. Martin--an artist who isn't household-name famous but is known enough to have inspired a dissertation--has been comatose since he had an aneurism and fell off a ladder in his studio. The tragedy was great for his saleability: Jarvis isn't wanting for money, so she doesn't have to work. She doesn't have to do much of anything. She's just waiting. Unable to move forward because of her liminal status as not-quite-widow, she wallows in the past--visiting Martin, of course, but also poring over his paintings, smelling his shirts every day...still, six years on. (Though no expert in the patterns and longevity of grieving, this struck me while reading as not quite credible. And yet Jarvis is depressed and stuck, and so, I suppose, anything's possible.) Attenberg's narrative captures the period in Jarvis's life when events conspire to push her out of the holding pattern she's been mired in.

Jarvis's story is told in the first person in languorous prose, glimpses of her past with Martin related in patches of back story that interrupt the description-rich narrative of the present. The sluggish rhythm of Jarvis's life is mirrored on the page, in the book's unusually long sentences--there's one that's 162 words long in chapter five--asides segregated from the main thrust of a sentence with dashes: Attenberg makes good use of her punctuational toolbox. (If I'm not mistaken, these long sentences becomes less frequent later in the book, as Jarvis's life itself picks up speed.) Jarvis is a complex, imperfect character. She was saved by her relationship with Martin from a life that was rootless and trivial. Having adopted an identity as his wife, who is she when he is gone, neither living nor dead? That's part of her problem.

The Kept Man is not the lightest book, but it's not as depressing as the above probably suggests. A good--if not run-screaming-through-the-streets good--read. You're unlikely to be disappointed.

-- Debra Hamel
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on February 9, 2008
I felt no connection to the main character. She seemed utterly unbelievable to me and without any substance. Also, I found it hard to believe that 3 men in a laundromat (also wondered about the lack of laundry facilities in their well-coifed buildings) were so eager to befriend this woman and welcome her into their circle.

Despite it's flaws, there are moments of beautiful writing...which is the reason for 3 stars.
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on January 23, 2008
Jami Attenberg is a fantastic writer, one that I'm sure we'll be hearing about a lot in the next few years. Though I tend to gravitate toward more gritty stuff, I was completely taken with The Kept Man. I usually don't care much for novels set in big cities, but this one is a winner. Beautiful writing!
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on February 9, 2009
In The Kept Man, Attenberg explores the themes of identity, loss, and change through the story of Jarvis, a rootless woman who found meaning and purpose in marriage, and who now must engage in the painful process of letting go and identifying her own needs and ambitions. Attenberg does not flinch from disturbing details, and, by eschewing sentimentality, creates a moving and believable character who draws the reader into the story.

PS: Those readers who had trouble with the idea that comfortably situated families would patronize a laundromat have clearly never visited Brooklyn.
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on February 3, 2013
Very interesting story, I kept it and would read it again. Very good up and coming author. Interesting back and forth opinions on the quality of life when a family member is kept on life support.
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VINE VOICEon January 8, 2008
I pre-ordered this book based on a review. I was looking forward to reading great prose and a unique story. Not. The book is written in a relaxed prose but the plot is hard to believe or respect. Jarvis Miller becomes a half widow when her famous artist husband has an accident involving an aneurysm, can of paint and a ladder. We are introduced to Jarvis Miller, wife of Martin Miller when he has been in a coma for six years. The novel then centers around how Jarvis attempts to come of of her shell of a pining half-widow. She involves herself with The Kept Man Club (three men with career wives) who meet up in a laundromat once a week. The wives bring in solid money so I never quite understood why none of them had a washer and dryer in their respective homes.
All of this takes place in New York where Jarvis works out her animosity for Martin's business partners and learns that her marriage was not what she thought it was. I don't see how she could have thought her marriage was one of fidelity when he is always involved with women and leaves her to retreat to a family cabin for months to work out his aches and pains. He never tells her when he will return or how long he will be there. Really. Jarvis tolerates it all and is thrilled when he returns. She is just grateful that he comes back. Jarvis sort of sees the light (post accident)when she discovers some photographs kept hidden by his former business partners. Unfortunately, I did not believe this party girl (her role prior to marrying Martin) was so naive and devoid of aggression. She had no problems managing the money derived from his artwork to keep herself solvent and to pay for his nursing home care.
Without giving the ending away, Jarvis makes a decision which causes anger and saddness for her in-laws. I really am not convinced why she would make that decision and did not find any real depth in her character.
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