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The Practical Heart: Four Novellas Paperback – August 27, 2002


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (August 27, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375727639
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375727634
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,148,314 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Allan Gurganus documents the daily dreams that sustain us. In the title novella of his extraordinary new collection, The Practical Heart, the narrator tells how his Aunt Muriel, a dour, genteel-poor Scottish immigrant, came to be painted by John Singer Sargent. This bit of family history turns out to be a fiction of the narrator's making, invented in an attempt to express how grand his aunt might have been, given an entirely different life. The other novellas likewise give us narrators interpreting and inventing the people around them. In "Preservation News" a woman eulogizes a historical preservationist who taught her the language of architecture; in "He's One, Too," a gay man looks back on his 1950s youth, when a stolid neighbor was arrested for indecent exposure in a public lavatory; in "Saint Monster," a son mourns his homely, good-hearted father, giving us parent-love as perhaps the most ordinary fantasy of all. --Claire Dederer --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The four novellas in this collection by Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, etc.) divide neatly into stylistic halves. The first two, "The Practical Heart" and "Preservation News," are written with an almost Jamesian attention to the semaphore of implications and elided emotions that mediate social pretenses. "The Practical Heart," which tells how the narrator's great-aunt Muriel Fraser came to be painted by John Singer Sargent, first builds a story, then deconstructs it. The story is foregrounded in the collapse of the Fraser family's Scottish fortune, which maroons the clan in Chicago, where Muriel goes from being a pampered heiress to a piano teacher. But the second chapter in this story takes us behind the scenes of the fiction, showing how Muriel, a stubborn, fragile woman, became her nephew-narrator's first guide to life outside of parochial Falls, N.C. In "Preservation News," Mary Ellen Broadfield, an 81-year-old woman of quality in Falls, writes the obituary of Tad Worth, the moving spirit behind the local preservationist scene. Openly gay, martini-loving, gossipy and unkempt, Worth carved a space for himself in Falls that would have been unimaginable in an earlier era. The next two stories, written in a more freewheeling style, inhabit the dark side of that earlier era. "He's One, Too," tells of the ruin of a local businessman, Dan R., caught feeling up a 15-year-old boy in a rest-room setup in Raleigh. "Saint Monster" is a memoir of Clyde Melvin Delman Sr. by his son. Clyde, an ugly, much cuckolded salesman, spent his life passing as white. Although the first two novellas are beautifully realized, the last two are needier texts, requiring an empathy on the reader's part that they don't quite merit. 14-city author tour.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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31 of 36 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 21, 2001
Format: Hardcover
In this loving, startling book, Allan Gurganus has outdone himself. I don't know of anybody writing who takes more emotional risks and who seems to know more about how very much people offer each other and the universe. There are writers who can do big crises, and there are others who specialize in the world of the everyday; but nobody can do both this well. There's a suspense you feel. I loved "Oldest Living Confederate Widow" and "White People" and also "Plays Well". Don't know why the novella form seems to work best for his talents. But each one of the works is different in tone and outlook. Each seems to have been written by another kind of writer. But, when you finish "Saint Monster", the last of the short novels, the generosity of vision, the dark humor and lighly accepted tragedy, both breaks your heart and leaves you somehow happy. Can't explain it. Both. Woody Allen claims: Tragedy plus Time equals Comedy.
In Gurganus's work, there's a willingness to let the story tell itself, to stay out of the characters' way. Not to be "Clever" or "show off", but to always brilliantly have the right word, the telling scene, the tone needed. I believe that Gurganus cares more about his people than anybody writing. He sees them, faults and all, until you feel ready to adopt him as your sponsor, or your god. This quiet funny book should win all the prizes. The day after I finished it, I looked around for something else good to read. Something somewhat like it. Then I just started The PRactical Heart again. You'll see what I mean. I think he has broken through to a different and a higher level of meaning and heart. The work is so lovingly shaped. It makes most everything else feel pulpy, like junk. This one will be read forever.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Russell L. Windle on February 6, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I have read all of Mr. Gurganus' catalog. "The Practical Heart" being his last. I liked the book but had problems with the first novella, the book's namesake "The Practical Heart" I found it choppy with to many flashforwards and flashbacks somehow the story gets lost in all of them. "Preservation News" was wonderful about a dying gay man who saves old houses, as was "He's One To" about a gay man who is outed when he is traped in a public restroom hitting on the cheif of Police's son. "Saint Monster" stands as the best of the four novellas in depth. It is about the son of man who delivers Bibles to motels and his mother who has a motel mentality making love to the town vet while father and son are away. His search after his father dies to find out more about him and eventually how to come to terms with his mother. I found the writing in "Saint Monster" similar to one of John Irving's twisted plots and I mean that in a good way. I like John Irving.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Lisa M on November 12, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
One of my favorite books. I have read it twice. Allan Gurganus draws into his mind and heart with his literary vision.
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5 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A+A on January 6, 2005
Format: Paperback
"The Practical Heart" has some fine writing, but also some awkward constructions and digressions that repeatedly chop up the flow of the stories.

The title story has a postmodern shift that distracted me and broke my emotional involvement with the main character. You're reading about a nephew writing about his aunt, then you learn the nephew was fictionalizing her life. The rest of the story is his true picture of her and their relationship, which is far less engaging.

In the second story, "Preservation News," the writing becomes even more precious and self-indulgent. Gurganus beats the reader over the head with forced whimsy.

For me the final straw came during the first conversation between a young historical preservationist and a widowed eastern North Carolina matron. Encouraging her to help with his work, he says, "You need to get your excellent, sinewy ass in gear, girl."

I'm from eastern North Carolina, I've met hundreds of matrons, and I have several gay friends, one of whom does historical preservation. I can assure you that Gurganus' line would never be spoken in the situation he presents. It was so absolutely phony that, coming after the book's other annoyances, I lost all interest in continuing.
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Kelly Brennan on April 14, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Allan is what they call an "old soul"---someone whose compassion and wisdom seem beyond what we are capable of seeing and understanding, and make us wish to become finer and nobler induviduals. Unlike so many modern novelists, his work is void of condecension and cynicism. I hope he finds the man who 'is one too..." If not, here at least is one who understands...
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More About the Author

Alan Gurganus's, books include White People and Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All. Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Gurganus is a Guggenheim Fellow and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Adaptations of his fiction have earned four Emmys. A resident of his native North Carolina, he lives in a village of six thousand souls.

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