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Waxwings: A novel Hardcover – September 30, 2003

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon (September 30, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375410082
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375410086
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,285,481 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Jonathan Raban's Waxwings is a canticle for the late 1990s told through the intertwined lives of several Seattlites. In the novel, the city becomes a microcosm of America at the turn of the millennium, and Raban's characters--all in some way tragic "tourists" in the world--are rendered with a compassion that redeems their personal failings.

Thomas Janeway is a British novelist and professor of literature at the University of Washington whose life is coming apart in his adopted home. He deeply loves his four-year-old son, Finn, but his wife, Beth, is caught up in the dot-com explosion, and the couple has grown apart. As Seattle erupts in the WTO riots and terrorist plots, Janeway's life crumbles around him. His wife leaves him, his house becomes a shambles of half-completed reconstruction, and his son is caught fighting in school. When he becomes a "person of interest" in the abduction and possible murder of a local girl, he is put on leave with pay from the university. Yet, Raban does not let Janeway--or any of his characters--wallow in self-pity. They all try to move forward with life, and even Janeway "the suspect" finds sympathetic allies in surprising places.

At one point in the novel, Janeway lectures his students on the "generosity" of V.S. Pritchett, saying that the writer believed "in a general redistribution of verbal wealth, in taking good lines from the haves, and giving them to the have-nots." This "liberal realism" also characterizes Raban's work. Raban treats all of his characters, from Janeway to Finn, with patience and balance. He fully inhabits each and tells fragments of the story from the perspective of Beth, Tom, Finn, and even Tom's illegal-immigrant contractor, Chick. One narrative infuses another, lending the novel a Dickensian universality. Together the disparate voices perfectly capture the particulars of a place, Seattle, at a unique moment in American history. --Patrick O'Kelley

From Publishers Weekly

A Hungarian-born British expatriate settled in dot-com-frenzied Seattle is the bemused protagonist of this inspired jumble of a novel, travel writer Raban's first since 1985's Foreign Land. Tom Janeway is a professor of writing, a novelist and a public radio commentator; his wife, Beth, works for GetaShack.com, a startup providing virtual neighborhood tours for prospective house buyers. They have a four-year-old son named Finn, and they appear content. Behind the happy facade, though, Beth has grown deeply unhappy with her self-absorbed husband, his immersion in books and his pretentious radio voice ("his fucking rolled r's")-she hankers after expensive cars, a bright new condo and honest attention. Unfolding in counterpoint to Raban's chronicle of the rather civilized collapse of their marriage is the story of a shady Chinese immigrant called Chick; he survives a horrific journey to America and becomes an off-the-books contractor who bullies Tom into employing him to renovate their gloomy old house after Beth moves out. Beneath the surface, larger currents are swirling, and Tom is suddenly swept up in them when he goes for a walk on a local nature trail and is misidentified as a suspect in a series of child murders. Chick's unpredictable antics sharpen the sense of menace, while a subplot about an egotistical British novelist who is considering a residency at Tom's college provides effective comic relief. Raban's caustic, affectionate commentary on the manic gyrations of millennial America unites these disparate plot lines, making his novel a wry paean to the cluttered, freewheeling lives led by the motley residents of an immigrant nation.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Waxwings by Jonathan Raban succeeds at every level.
Philip Spires
He knows how to make stuff up but (at least on the strength of Waxwings) he doesn't know how to hide the facts.
Bob Richard
At the end of the book, I didn't know what it was about, and couldn't easily explain what had happened.
Catherine Cheek

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Anonyma on January 30, 2004
Format: Hardcover
If you fell for the hype of Franzen's "The Corrections" and were disappointed, if you thought "Bonfire of the Vanities" covered interesting territory but read like a screenplay instead of a novel, if you appreciated Roth's "American Pastoral," and admired Hamilton's "Map of the World" but couldn't handle the heartbreak -- then by all means read Waxwings. It is a masterpiece.
This is the first book I've read by Mr. Raban, and on the basis of a few of the lukewarm reviews posted here, I can only assume that he previously wrote for a different type of audience.
Waxwings is great literature: a fascinating incarnation of "the great American novel" and a more appropriate recipient of all the buzz The Corrections received. The story is engaging and unpredictable; the writing flawless, elegant, acrobatic, funny, and well worth studying.
I bow at your feet, Mr. Raban: I'd like to send you a dozen roses. (Every page is a wonder, but I was particularly moved by the interaction of the very true-to-life boy and his goofy dog. It reminded me of the snippets of inspired dialogue in Mill on the Floss.)
Is the beginning slow? I'll come clean. I didn't warm to the heavy boat talk in the first eight pages, but after that I couldn't put the book down.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By David P on October 16, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Having read most of Raban's non-fiction I was curious about his skill as a novelist. Waxwings for the most part succeeds. It has some terrific (sometimes piercingly funny) writing and all the elements of a classic English novel (a little bit of Thomas Hardy, a little bit of Dickens...). The characters are interesting and believable when they need to be, and just enough over the top to create some truly funny moments (the GetAShack.com subplot is riotously funny... been there, seen that) in the midst of what is really a rather sobering tale.
And it is a serious story: by the latter half of the story we are fully engaged and understand the kind of humiliation and anger that Tom, the protagonist, must be going through.
But I will say that I found the first half to be drifting somewhat; the book doesn't really find its compass until page 129, when Tom first encounters the scrappy immigrant Chick on his front porch. Prior to that, I found a lot to be distracted by in the frequent invoking of Seattle Insider references. I'm a lifelong resident of the place but even for me there is little (if any) mental image I get from names like The Painted Table or Terrafazione. What do these place or product names tell the reader, if anything, about this particular story? For someone not fluent in the local vocabulary they say nothing, and for those of us who live here these place names invoke their own stories, which may be quite unrelated to the story in which they now appear. (For example I have my own quite vivid impressions of Waldo's Tavern... which simply add to my sense of distraction and confusion when Tom somehow arrives there, quite far off course, at the end of his self-absorbed hike on the Sammamish Trail.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By B. Capossere TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 13, 2003
Format: Hardcover
If you've read some of the earlier reviews, I can attest that several of the criticisms have a point: he is at times overly preachy, the book does have a slow beginning, and he does occasionally drop too many brand or local names. That's the bad and it isn't much in comparison to what I found to be a wonderfully paced and peopled novel.
To begin with, while I can see how some might call the opening slow or drifting, I found its pace more pleasingly meditative rather than annoyingly slow. And as for its place in the novel, it may not seem to make much sense as you're reading it in terms of what the bookjacket or a review led you to think the novel is about, but once you've gotten into the heart of the novel, those opening pages read much differently. Their characters may have disappeared, but their tone and their content and their thematic underpinnings remain like a haunting echo. An echo which is nicely and playfully emphasized by a literary mini-seminar given by the main character with regards to a similar opening in a better known work.
As for the preachiness, yes, at times Raban could have hit us a little more lightly or a little less frequently with the absurdity of the dot-com bubble, but it makes for such a rich and tempting target that it's easy to see how he could fall into that trap. And since almost all his hits are smack on target and funny as well, I'll give him the over-indulgence. The same holds true for the brand-name dropping.
So much for the book's weaknesses. As for the strengths, they are plentiful.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Catherine Cheek on January 9, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I don't usually go for the 'literary' type novels, caring more for story than for prose, but I decided to give this a go anyway. Having chosen it at random, I had no previous expectations, and was pleasantly surprised to find it well-set in one of my favorite cities. Tom, the protagonist, is richly drawn and sympathetic. His wife Beth, less well drawn, seems to be there mostly to provide Tom with conflict.

The story wanders through the first half of the book, and the plot goes here or there without any guide map. Is it about Tom's relationship with the Chinese roofer? Is it about his relationship issues? Is it about the fateful walk he takes? The reviewers didn't seem to know either, and I don't blame him. At the end of the book, I didn't know what it was about, and couldn't easily explain what had happened.

Does it matter? No. Tom felt real to me, and Raban didn't let his beautiful prose get in the way of the story. After a hundred pages, I knew I wanted to read it to the end, and at the end, I felt happy with the ride. What else do we expect from a novel?
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