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on September 25, 2008
The Spirit of the Place makes two books in a row that have reminded me why I should never judge a book by its cover. The cover of this book left me thinking 'meh' but the novel itself knocked my socks off.

Shem's prose is mesmerizing and beautiful. This is a book to be savored. The plot steadily unfolds versus rushing forth. And yet, it held my attention from start to finish.

The most outstanding aspect of this novel, for me, was the emotional depth that Shem conveyed in his characters. Especially in Orville and Miranda, but also in secondary characters such as the old town physician Bill Starbuck, Miranda's sweet six year-old son Cray and Orville's passionate, impulsive pre-teen niece Amy. Even characters who made brief appearances, such as the flighty, ethereal Celestina Polo, and Starbuck's dutiful wife Babette were vivid to the reader through Orville's narration.

Orville was a man full of turmoil. His love life. His career. His relationship with his deceased mother. All his life he ran away instead of staying. Because of the terms of his mother's will, he is forced to stay. In Columbia, that is.

The town of Columbia is a character in and of itself. A town so unbelievably self-destructive that it borders on hilarious. Orville stayed under duress. Thanks to his mother's will, he stood to gain almost a million dollars by staying for at least one year and thirteen months. Could he learn to love, or at least accept his hometown. Would he?

Then there was his relationships with women. I wouldn't say I didn't like Celestina Polo, but I thought she was wrong for Orville. Miranda, on the other hand, I not only adored but completely sympathized with. It was difficult to watch Miranda and Orville's relationship deteriorate. Their fears, their emotions seemed so incredibly real. It was what most of us have felt at one time when we wanted something so badly, but were so afraid we couldn't have it that our fears became a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy.

Finally, there was Orville's relationship with his mother, Selma. Selma cared enough about her son to leave a boxful of letters to be sent to her son at specified times after her death. Yet, the letters were often harsh and critical and full of unforgiveness and grudges held by a mother against her only son.

Orville's struggle to come to terms with Selma, Miranda, and the sad little town of Columbia - and they are all intertwined - is the driving force of this story. There are several interesting subplots artfully woven in, such as the fight to save an historic Columbian hotel, Orville's relationship with the man who tormented and bullied him as a child, and Cray, Miranda's son who falls for Orville in much the same was his mother does: tentative love mixed with self-protective fear.

Shem's fascinating account of Orville's cathartic one year and thirteen days in Columbia is a perfect example of how a return to our hometown can force us to face the past.
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on May 3, 2010
When I first received this book, I wondered what I was thinking. I read science fiction and fantasy. I prefer dragons and spaceships to real world based fiction. With the exception of classic literature, my reading leans that way. Upon reading, I can definitively put this book, Spirit of the Place, in the Modern Classic category. I put books in this category when I have a hard time putting them down. And thus having a hard time waiting to pick them back up again.

When Dr. Orville Rose is informed of his mother's passing back home, he is living a nearly Utopian life in Europe with a yoga instructor and happily engaging himself as a physician in a high end spa. His mother has left him a good sized inheritance, but a condition comes with it. He reluctantly returns home to a town he never wanted to return to. He must stay in his mother's house for a year and thirteen days. To occupy his time, he assists the town doctor. During the time he spends there, he finds something he's been lacking (but thought he had) in his Utopian life.

As the imposed time draws near, he struggles to choose between two vastly different lives. I enjoyed following him on his journey of the soul. Even though it's been a while since i sat down and read Spirit of the Place, but it has stayed with me. Dr. Rose' journey into true healing of his spirit.
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on September 5, 2008
This is a beautifully written, multi-layered novel about a doctor who comes to terms with his past by returning to his hometown--a town "plagued by breakage." As he confronts his childhood pain, Dr. Orville Rose also discovers his inner goodness and strength, and starts to see the same in the difficult characters in is life, including a childhood bully and his deceased mother who floats by when he needs her the least. Dr. O's patients become the direct beneficiaries of his inner transformation.

Sam Shem, a Harvard psychiatrist, weaves a trail of human pain into a tale of faltering, and ultimately, illuminated healing. His main character is a modern-day Bodhisattva, bringing light into dark places. Although the book is published in the Kent State University series on literature and medicine, it seems to be equally at home in Buddhist psychology. It's a deeply compassionate book and I feel like a better person for having read it.
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on May 3, 2009
I picked up this book because James Fallows recommended it on his blog. I read to the end because of the characters. I didn't mind that not every mystery was solved, not every misunderstanding was set right. That's how it is in real life. The sense of breakage in place, people, and relationships was delicately interweaved. All the famous people connected to the city of Columbia, New York -- especially the contemporary ones like Ollie North -- gave me a fact checking itch, but not enough to scratch. The ending was perfect.
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VINE VOICEon December 29, 2012
As a very young boy, Orville Rose senses that he is "a part of something else," a joyous cry that his mother quickly quashes with the stern response, "This is all there is." Orville runs to his room in tears and basically spends the rest of his life running away.

Now after he has served overseas as a Doctor Without Borders and seen all there is to see of suffering, disease, murder and more, he has fallen in love with an Italian woman, Celestina. His tranquility is shattered upon receiving a telegram that his mother died and it is two weeks after her death that he arrives at Columbia, a small town bordering the Hudson River in upstate New York. His mother has stymied her son Orville in two ways: First she leaves him over a million dollars which he gets only after he has lived in Columbia for a year and thirteen days. Second, she has written letters to Orville which an unknown person is mailing, per her direction, to him, letters which are notes condemning Orville for his failure to care for her adequately which he initially takes as truth and proceeds to fulfill in reality.

Orville falls in love again after Celestina dumps him for a rich man. As Orville is getting more and more disgusted with his hometown, he meets Miranda and her son Cray, who calls Orville "Orvy." Miranda is handicapped and after awhile Orville realizes how emotionally handicapped he is as well. No, this isn't a morbid book but one in which tragedy, irony, and comedy are always flowing, weaving together and insisting on their own separate, special scenes.

In reality, the tendency for all material objects in Columbia to break parallels the brokenness of its citizens. They are blind to progress and what is best for one's own well-being and therefore tend to veto and despise everything new or modern. But it takes a whole novel for the diamond in the rough to emerge in both characters and the town in which they live.

You will meet a selfless doctor, a childhood bully turned politician, a woman excelling in her physical beauty and teasing sexuality, a widow terrified to trust in love again, a boy in desperate need of a father, and more characters who immediately grip the reader's interest and don't let go.

The Spirit of the Place is fine, literate contemporary fiction about love between a mother and son, son and lover, mentors and more! Wonderful, well-written story!
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on February 1, 2012
What if your impossibly difficult mother dies but won't stay dead, and contrives to get you back to the self-destructive little town you escaped? What if the whole town is broken and you're supposed to heal it? Meanwhile, the childhood bully you knew is now running for Congress and wants not just your vote but your friendship. And what if you and your soul mate are "disabled in love?"

This is a beautiful book -- with characters I could hear and see. Shows how true love rises from the grit we live in and our foolish mistakes.
The whole novel feels real and like other reviewers, I feel improved for having read it.
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on October 20, 2010
I began reading " The Spirit of the Place" the moment it arrived by mail. I turned the last page six hours later. In the beginning I devoured each page. In the middle I savored each word. In the end, I slowed to a snail's pace afraid the last page was near. "The Spirit of the Place" is one of those rare reads that is not content to slap awake every emotion , it must continue on to the marrow. Like all good books this one should be read repeatedly until its pages are tattered and its back weakened.
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on May 5, 2009
I finished "The Spirit of the Place" at 3:15 AM in the morning, having become so engrossed in the story that I felt compelled to read until the end. Although the book wrecked my sleep pattern for a week, I strongly recommend it. Bravo to Shem for constructing such a beautifully-rendered story of leaving and returning, lurching and leaping and landing. It gathers the essential parts into a satisfying whole and left me in the wee hours covered with a smile.
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on January 7, 2013
Samuel Shem has done it again. As with his earlier works he creates a wonderful portrait of a little piece of the world. I'm very familiar with the locale of this story and Shem does more than justice in his re-creation of space and time. (To say nothing of the clever shifts and compressions that bring things and people together in a delightful juxtaposition.) A joy to read.
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on October 13, 2013
Drawing again on autobiographical details, Shem takes us back to the Hudson valley where he grew up. It is a tale of a country doctor that draws you in--right up to the final page.
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