43 of 51 people found the following review helpful
With his debut novel, Adam Haslett has written a nuanced story for our times. Arguably, it is the story of self-made banker, Doug Fanning, as the novel begins and ends with him. However, Fanning is just one of a small ensemble of richly-drawn characters orbiting and intersecting each other. The banker is embroiled in a lawsuit and property dispute with Charlotte Graves. Charlotte is an aging schoolteacher who is in the process of slowly, sadly loosing her mind. Witnessing this is Charlotte's brother, Henry, who also happens to be the President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Henry is the ultimate authority to whom bankers like Fanning, who play fast and loose with their clients' money, must answer. And finally there is 18-year-old Nate Fuller, infatuated with Fanning and Charlotte in very different ways.
These characters and several others defy easy classification. It's far too simplistic to paint Fanning as the villain of this story. Although this novel is set in 2002, Haslett sheds a great deal of light on the banking environment that led to the recent bailouts. No one sets out to defraud the public. No one thinks they're the bad guy. One small decision leads to others; events snowball and grow out of control. Fanning relies on situational ethics in both his personal and professional life, with devastating consequences. Charlotte, on the other hand brings to bear an unyielding moral code that does almost as much harm.
The story that unfolded on the pages of Union Atlantic was filled with ethical and emotional complexities. They made the novel feel like so much... more... than a mere story in a book. It had the complexity and messiness of life. Haslett's prose shines throughout, but does not overshadow, the tale he's telling. Wow, talk about a writer to watch! Surely, this will be one of the strongest debuts of the year.
26 of 32 people found the following review helpful
At its most simple level, "Union Atlantic" tells the story of a bank failure and a feud between neighbors over a contested piece of property. But the novel is so much more. Both stories have betrayal somewhere at their core; both are compellingly told and raise larger questions about what constitutes morality and whether any real principles of justice underpin our society. Both present the reader with a set of unforgettable and brilliantly drawn characters.
One of most unassuming of these, Henry Graves, is President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. At one point, he escorts a bank employee down to the basement of the Fed, to take a look at the physical gold that apparently provides a standard of value to our financial system. It sits in stacks in cages. In the context of this novel, this gold clearly has a larger meaning. "Add it all up," Henry says, "and it's no more than eighty or ninety billion worth. The wires clear more than that in an hour. All anchored to nothing but trust." Without that trust, we have no society; not even a loaf of bread can be sold or consumed. This novel explores what happens when fraud (in war, in love, in family) destroys that trust. It is thus not an easy novel to read. Indeed, there is a disturbing cynicism at its core. Though it is set in the year after Sept. 11, 2001, the editor explains that it was completed the week that Lehman Bros. fell; it is thus a weirdly (though bleakly) wise and prescient novel.
More than one of the chief characters is self-destructive. (I will limit myself here to what is implicit and present at the beginning, so as not to spoil the plot.) As the novel opens, a high school student whose empathy extends to both the two feuding neighbors has lost his father to suicide. As other amazon reviewers, less sympathetic to this book than I, have pointed out, Doug Fanning, a banker who builds a grotesque, ostentatious mansion he leaves mostly unfurnished, seems emotionally dead, out of touch with his own motives and desires. A former high school teacher, Charlotte Graves, who lives next door and loathes the monstrosity that Fanning has created, is so animated by a longing for revenge and a nostalgia for the meaning provided by great works of western civilization, a meaning scrubbed away by the money economy, that she is driven mad.
But in spite of the novel's tragic dimensions, it is also quite funny. Charlotte's madness causes her to hallucinate that her dogs are speaking to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X (these hallucinations are both beautiful and hilarious). And, finally, it opens the door to glimmers of hope (remember, I said, glimmers). If you stick with this remarkable novel, you will find them by the end. The feud, for example, ends with the hint, if not of forgiveness, at least of respect between worthy enemies whose goal was not really to destroy each other. Fanning's motives are unveiled, both to the reader and to himself. For another character, love is possible.
Also, Haslett is a remarkable writer. You may need to read some paragraphs twice, but they repay the effort. Each word is chosen with absolute care.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2010
I picked this up in a Paris bookstore and since I remembered "You Are Not a Stranger Here" being particularly good, I bought this book without a lot of hesitation. I did like the book (it kept me company on the plane home); it's definitely not as bad as some of the reviewers here say, but it's also not the masterpiece that some have said it is. I think "Esquire" calls it a novel for the new century on the jacket blurb or something. I'd say it falls somewhere in between.
A number of reviewers have noted that the book is basically a morality of play with Charlotte on one end standing up for what she believes in; Doug is on the other cutting corners everywhere so he can to maximize Union Atlantic's profits; and Nate, the teenager is in between, as an undeveloped character.
I would agree with this and take it all a bit further. Charlotte is the person who stands up for what she believes in. As a teacher, she offers up history, including the darker episodes in our past and is eventually forced out because of it. Everyone tells her to tone it down, just go along. Even when she fights to preserve the land her grandfather donated to the town, she is urged to give in and move on. Ultimately, she loses her mind. While other factors have also brought it on, I kind of felt it represented the futility felt by some during the period. Oppose the war? You were called unpatriotic/with us or against us. Question government? You were warned of mushroom clouds and terrorists winning. Who would not go crazy?
Doug, on the other hand, is all about profits at all costs, winning, and collecting the material goods along the way. Of course, he has his own emotional reasons for doing this and wanting the trophy house as we find out, but ultimately he lets no one stand in the way his own and his company's interests. We have definitely seen a lot of that over the past 10 years or so and look at where we are now.
Now, as for Nate, I think he's purposely undeveloped. Isn't that kind of where a lot of people stand? Not everyone is the learned teacher/environmentalist with strong convictions. Nor is everyone a cut-throat climber like Doug. Many of us will often go along because it's the easier thing to do. Protest the war? At the time, you would have been thought of as crazy by some. Get into a heated political discussion at a dinner party? Not worth it. But a lot of us wouldn't step over people at work to get to the top, either. At different times, we feel attracted to various points along the spectrum.
A few other points:
The convergence of characters does seem a bit like a movie plotline (think Crash or Amores Perros) where everyone comes together and is intertwined in some way.
Even though Doug is cut-throat in his ways, he is the product of his upbringing and his experience in war; I thought that the latter was particularly telling in these times.
The relationship, if you could call it that, between Nate and Doug seems a bit unlikely, but I guess that may be the point.
I wonder if anyone else thought that a few of the characters, particularly Charlotte, spoke like Brits. Read a few of her lines and think Brit accent.
Overall, I'd say the book moves pretty quickly and if you have some interest in the topics covered, it might be worth it.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on April 4, 2010
"Union Atlantic" worked best for me when I considered the main characters not as fictional individuals whose lives become intertwined (a little too conveniently and therefore unrealistically), but as symbols for the cultural forces that competed for America's soul in the aftermath of 9/11.
The innocent and naive character Nate suffers a personal loss. Nate's loss is symbolic of America's loss on 9/11. In the novel, Nate is drawn to both Doug Fanning and Charlotte Graves, two characters in a battle with each other over a land dispute. While they do not directly compete for his soul, Nate sees a little to like in each of them even as he recognizes that he cannot be loyal to both at the same time. Yet, he tries to steer a middle path and, in justification for giving into his desire for Doug, Nate declares that his personal loss "permitted him this moral lapse. As if, in some grand ledger, his loss had earned him a pass or two." I want to be clear that his "moral lapse" is not same gender sex, but to seeking fulfillment in someone who values only self-promotion and personal wealth.
Yet, Doug is not evil. There is a little of Doug in all of us. We are Americans, after all! Doug, who is symbolic of America's gnawing desire for material things and superficial image, notes that 9/11 "only sped the trend" to his own accumulation of wealth. Charlotte is America's moral conscious who wants America to wake up and reevaluate its less noble values. Charlotte has never tolerated moral lapses. Her brother, Henry, as President of the New York Fed, represents government's struggle between doing what is right in the long term and doing what is expedient in order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the system. Unfortunately, expediency wins out in the novel as in real life.
It is a sad commentary that what the terrorists did not do to us on 9/11 - destroy our financial systems and the fabric of our soul - we managed to do to ourselves by nearly completely giving into the instincts represented by Doug instead of embracing a larger consciousness as expessed through Charlotte (and her dogs). I think "Union Atlantic" will succeed for those readers who are willing to see themselves in the characters and to take a sobering look at the choices we have made as a nation over the last 10 years.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
What do talking dogs, neighborly feuds, banking misconduct, slacker teens, ostentatious wealth, an illicit and unhealthy sexual relationship, and the potential collapse of the American financial system have in common? On the surface, you might say--"not much." But each is key element in Adam Haslett's fascinating and irresistibly complex stunner "Union Atlantic." Incredibly hard to describe, but beautifully written, Haslett has created a meaningful and memorable portrait of America at the dawn of the 21st century. At the simplest level, the bulk of the story might be described as a financial thriller with one of the most engaging anti-heroes/villains I've encountered in a long time. But that is just one character and a fraction of the story!
Since I can't really describe "Union Atlantic" in any way that will do it justice, I'll just introduce the three main characters: Doug Fanning, a wildly successful and ethically compromised banker, has traded his meager upbringing and military background for a shot at the American dream. Charlotte Graves, a former teacher, is trying to maintain an idealism and, in the process, hold onto her sanity. Nate Fuller, a unfocused and troubled teen, is navigating his place in the world and learning to understand himself. Each of these principle characters could easily sustain a novel unto themselves. That's how well drawn they are. But Haslett somehow brings them together in surprising and relevant ways. Even the supporting players are fully realized and given real dimension.
At times, the disparate elements and story threads of Haslett's novel don't always seem to fit together in the same book--but that is the brilliance of "Union Atlantic!" In a very unorthodox way, it tells several different tales about a very specific time in modern American history. Characters with little in common are still quite interconnected, almost tragically so. Each is trying to make sense of a changing, and ever more impersonal, world with varying amounts of success. I loved the messiness of "Union Atlantic." Real, bold, outlandish, topical, and relevant--I suspect readers will describe "Union Atlantic" in a number of different ways based on its complexity. But it's still immensely readable and entertaining with bursts of unexpected humor. Haslett's juggles so much content so successfully, it's hard not to sing the praises of "Union Atlantic" and a new literary voice! KGHarris, 2/10.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 19, 2014
I admired this book primarily because Haslett chose to write about large issues in our culture, and because he made complicated ones (investment banking) easy to understand. This is an ambitious book, and Haslett succeeds in creating a novel about important and difficult aspects of our complicated world. The set-up is extremely interesting, and the characters mostly are believable. I was easily drawn into the separate dramas of Charlotte, Henry, and Nate, and I remained engaged in them all the way through the book. Charlotte, the retired teacher, in particular was a great character. Haslett has terrific insights into the mentality of bankers, and small touches, like the relationship of CEO's to congressmen, are hilarious.
Haslett had me hooked with the banker Fanning's soullessness, given his background. His unconscious sense of entitlement toward Charlotte was quite plausible, and I found Fanning a fascinating character until near the end. But his attitude toward his mother seemed a stretch, even given the callousness he displayed in the war. I found it most implausible that he didn't visit her until the end, even though he lived nearby for years. That's more heartless than I believed him to be, and in no way ambiguous, like his abhorrent actions on the warship may have been. Also, I thought the excesses displayed by Fanning's boss Holland (and boss's wife) over the top. I don't doubt that people are like that, or that they throw parties with the kind of excess shown, but I felt that Haslett didn't need to be so dramatically satiric, in order to make the points he was making.
In short, an impressively ambitious novel about important issues in our world, with great characters.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Union Atlantic is a novel that appears to be particularly timely, and it seems to me that has how the book has been publicized. Yes, a portion of it is about a banker who plays fast and loose with funds and brings his institution to the brink of disaster. And, yes, there is a theme about an aging former teacher living in her rundown ancestral home waging war against the banker's McMansion. However, publicizing it that way is a bit of an oversimplification and is also rather misleading.
I think a lot of the book's themes can be boiled down to a statement about the general malaise and tendency toward apathy that does seem to be something of the attitude of the day. The characters in the book move through life without really connecting with one another. They are all either motivated by their own wants and needs or distracted by their work. There is very little warmth or human connection in the book, which ultimately makes it something of a depressing, if thought-provoking read. I found these themes interesting, and didn't entirely dislike the book because I felt they were generally handled well.
Where the book fails is with the characters. I didn't feel a real connection with any of them and the one in whom I was most interested was Henry, the brother of the aforementioned former teacher, who also happens to work for the Federal Reserve. However, my interest in him was mild at best as I never really could get attached to him. Haslett does offer some overt information about Henry, but there is no real insight into what motivates this character. Most of the passages about Henry are more focused on the minutiae of his work with the Federal Reserve. While this was moderately interesting, it never really gives the reader a clear idea of what makes Henry tick.
Doug Fanning, the McMansion owner and shady banker, is just flat-out unlikeable. This might have been okay if his character had been a bit more developed. Yes, we are giving information about his past, but it hardly made me want to feel any sympathy for him. I found him just too one-dimensional, just too much of a stereotypical greedy banker type. One of my biggest disappointments about him was the unsatisfying nature of where his character is at by the end of the book.
Charlotte, the former teacher, was just plain strange. I could appreciate her resentment for the way much of the U.S. is being taken over by generic, sterile, cookie-cutter houses and shopping malls, but she was just too far gone to connect much with her. As for Nate, I did feel sorry for him, but he never really felt like a real character to me.
I think what may have worked against the characterization of this book was the feeling that it was a whole world being examined with a microscope. This worked when Haslett was describing the way banks do end runs around regulations, but it doesn't work when trying to create characters with whom a reader can empathize. I had admittedly high expectations for the book, after hearing it praised by multiple sources. Ultimately, however, I was very much let down.
11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on February 15, 2010
This was a strange read for me. I really wanted to love it, wanted it to be the 2000's answer to A Man in Full. At the end, however, I was disappointed--disappointed all the way through but especially at the end. I think the author needed to either focus more on fewer characters or make the book twice as long and really turn it into an epic. At 300 pages it felt too short, like a sketch almost. Furthermore, although it's narrated from at least five or six points of view I felt overall that none of the characters were real execept for one--ironically, the one who is totally insane. The rest felt cardboardish and flat and totally predictable in how they'd act.
There are some exceptional passages, however. When the author writes about the economy he really nails it. The passage on page 259 is utterly brilliant and scathing wherein he describes the micro-economy created by a class action lawsuit against a corporation.
A pleasant, high-minded beach read, great for forgetting but utlimately forgettable.
PS Does anyone know how all the reviews for this book got written before the book was actually published? Advance copies maybe?
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
I loved You Are Not a Stranger Here: Stories -- well-crafted short stories with depth and a dark beauty. Haslett's prose was very masculine without being drenched in testosterone. I was looking forward to another book by him. In the meantime, I came across a story of his in the Atlantic's 2005 Fiction Issue, titled "City Visit." That story told of a very troubled gay high school student who saved up his money so he could purchase a sexual encounter on a visit to New York with his seemingly clueless mother. It had a perverse and even sadder Salinger-esque quality about it.
Haslett's first novel, "Union Atlantic" exhibits that same masculine prose. In style, it reads like a Mailer or Bellow work from the early 1960s. But the substance of the book could not be more contemporary. The book illustrates an America that has lost its way, where "the center will not hold." There are four main characters: Doug Fanning, Charlotte Graves, her brother, Henry Graves, and Nate Fuller. The central character is Doug Fanning the uber-American -- born of a single mom, he left high school to join the Navy, put himself through business school, and is now a militant master of high finance for a maverick investment bank. Charlotte Graves is the moral compass of the book, wise in her knowledge of American History and a long-time high school teacher whose mission was not simply to teach her students the facts of American History, but to offer them an unvarnished context in which to understand these facts. Charlotte is now close to 80 and is fading into a senility. her decline reflects that of America as a moral force -- "the center will not hold." Henry Graves, Charlotte's younger brother is now head of the New York Fed (the position Tim Geithner held before becoming Treasury Secretary). He has always admired Charlotte. But, though still concerned with doing the right thing, Henry has had to shave his ethics a bit as one situated at the interface between the worlds of finance and politics. The fourth main character is Nate Fuller, a high school slacker, who is part of a close-knit foursome of teenagers, three boys and a girl, all of whom are straight except for Nate.
The book begins with Fanning at the tail end of his time in the Navy, serving in the Persian Gulf in 1988 on the missile cruiser USS Vincennes during the [real] incident in which a blunder by some crew members caused the Vincennes to shoot down an Iranian passenger plane, killing 290 passengers aboard including 66 children. Doug draws lessons as he watches the US Government and Navy lie about what happened and attempt to avoid moral responsibility for the incident.
We next meet Fanning in a post 9/11 world in which he has made a fortune as a financial genius who is willing to play fast and loose with the Securities laws when his calculations indicate the effort will pay off. He is the star of Union Atlantic, a very successful new investment banking firm in Boston. Fanning is the new American hero, a sociopath adept in the American art form of financial speculation. With his money, he purchases a piece of land in Finden, Massachusetts, the rich community in which his mother used to labor and builds a monstrous, soulless house. The land is located next to the property of Charlotte Graves and was donated to the city by her father specifically as open space. Charlotte is an institution in Finden. She taught American History in the high school for decades until she was forced out because she demanded that her students care about the subject. She was at once cantankerous and passionate. Someone who cared deeply about the American we all claim to love and quite knowledgeable of the schemes, shenanigans, and moral outrages perpetrated by plutocrats throughout our history. She is upset that the city has sold the land to Fanning so that he might build on it and decides to sue. While Charlotte is wise, she is losing her faculties. Her house has become a shambles with large stacks of papers piled up throughout. And spending most of her time alone with her two dogs, she begins to imagine that they each have distinct personalities and ideologies and can speak, advise, and argue with her.
Nate Fuller is having trouble in his American History course prompting the school to send him to Charlotte for tutoring. While leaving Charlotte's house one evening, he decides to take a close look at Fanning's new house. Eventually Nate meets Fanning. Fanning is a tall, handsome, well-built man whom women are taken with. But the only sex in this book is that between Fanning and Doug. It is brutish and clearly a power game that fascinates each of them. It does not appear that Fanning has any romantic feelings of any kind toward anyone. His "connection" with Nate is very disturbing and brings to mind the "relationship" from the 2005 Haslett story. But the point that the only sex in the book is "perverse" consumed with power and humiliation without any sense of affection also suggests an America in decline.
The main plot elements to the book are Charlotte Graves's lawsuit and a serious problem with one of the market manipulations that Fanning has devised that leads to an investigation by the New York Fed under Henry Graves. Along the way, we get a well-presented basic course in how the bankers were working the system in the free-for-all under the George W. Bush administration. While the book is dark, the prose is sharp and engaging and along the way there is a comedy-of-manners set piece that is quite hilarious.
The foreboding of Auden's "September 1, 1939" is everpresent in this book. As we all stand on the brink of a new age in American history, "Union Atlantic" is a timely and thoughtful contribution to where we are now. The book is not always enjoyable, but it may emerge as a meaningful contribution to the American canon.
10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Adam Haslett burst into my radar with his outstanding short story collection: You Are Not A Stranger Here. His characters were original, quirky, and often unforgettable. But in his debut novel, he sacrifices character for plot...which unfortunately, makes for tedious reading.
The book centers on an old-fashioned morality play -- Doug Fanning, scheming banker and ex-soldier, is pitted against his elderly neighbor, Charlotte Graves, a dumped ex-teacher whose ancestral land now hosts Doug's showy mansion. It's a classic case of old values versus new, the contemporary banker without a compass pitted against the environmentalist without a future. Doug is willing to go to all lengths to keep his bank -- Union Atlantic -- afloat; Charlotte's brother, Henry Graves, heads the New York Federal Reserve. And into this mix goes Charlotte's troubled and naive ex-student Nate -- who has a crush on Doug -- along with her two messianic dogs who, undoubtedly, represent the primal core within each of us.
The book should have all the elements of success -- Boston-area bankers, financial malfeasance, money and sex, the brutality of war, even the summoning of ancient and guiding animal spirits. But the writing is often clunky; for example,"On his advice, the bank had brazenly commenced acquisitions that were strictly speaking still illegal but that Doug foresaw would be approved by the time the deals were finalized, in part because of Union Atlantic's own lobbying but also because their competitors, as soon as they caught on, would follow suit adding their own legislative pressure to scrap the old protections." Where was the editor for run-ons such as this?
And the characters become stand-ins for Haslett's obviously extensive knowledge about the financial morass and massive investment fraud our country has stepped into over the past few years. None of them dazzle. For those who are interested in an in-depth fictional look at the "belly of the financial beast", I would recommend this book. But for those who are seeking a strong character study, this is not the book for you.