23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: The Death Instinct (Hardcover)In Jed Rubenfeld's sexy, moody, Hitchcockian-cum-Freudian-cum-Jungian literary novel, The Interpretation of Murder, Dr. Stratham Younger narrates a story within the framework of a fictional journal, focusing on his experiences with Drs. Jung and Freud on their revolutionary visit to the United States in 1909. Rubenfeld braided historical fact and fiction in this Manhattan corkscrew murder mystery, centering on Freud's pioneering "talking therapy" and penning some biting dialogue between the three psychoanalysts. Younger's skepticism and attraction to Freud's theories enhanced the mesmerizing story of his attempt to cure a damaged, neurotic, and mute woman. The novel was peopled with a sprawling cast of doctors and louche politicians, drawing the reader into a lush, dissecting mixture of cerebral scrutiny and emotional desire.
Rubenfeld's second and very ambitious novel also weaves fact and fiction, with extensive scope, while adopting some of the motifs and themes from his debut work. This time the author is tacitly paralleling events in the novel to the economic depression of contemporary times, as well as the 9/11 tragedies.
The year is now 1920, the eve of the roaring twenties, women's suffrage, and the transition from Wilson to Harding. Nobel Prize winner (twice) Madame Curie is about to tour the United States to raise funds for her research on radium. Radium is already being used in industry to paint luminous watch dials, poisoning the working women at a factory in Manhattan. Many factory workers are out of work altogether. Prohibition starts and gives rise to speakeasies, Babe Ruth has been traded to the Yankees (1919), and Freud has advanced his theory of human drives in his essay, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," which expounds on the theory of the death instinct. The Mexican Revolution is officially over, but tensions are not.
The Treaty of Versailles had severed many of Germany's provinces from its territories (1919). J.P. Morgan & Company is the titanic leader of finance. Moreover, a billion dollars in gold is being transferred from the old Sub-Treasury to the adjacent Assay Office via overhead bridge. The author incorporates all these historical events, (and more) into a multi-faceted, sometimes brilliant, not quite numinous, but intriguing and educating story.
Stratham Younger, now a veteran of the Great War and an ex-psychiatrist and ex-husband, is standing on Wall Street when a bomb explodes, killing and maiming many civilians. It was at that time the biggest terrorist attack ever executed on American soil. Unsolved to this day, there is insubstantial conjecture that Italian anarchists were behind it. This leaves it wide open for Rubenfeld to create a capital, confabulated truth from historical, anecdotal, documented, and apocryphal background and a florid imagination. He does it superbly, with an expansive cast that includes authentic politicians and businessmen, the FBI and Treasury kingpins, as well as fictional characters. It also alludes, by comparison, that a proper criminal investigation was never conducted for 9/11.
(Fictional) Detective Littlemore, of the New York Police Department and Younger's best friend (present in Rubenfeld's first novel), comes on board to help him try to solve the case. Accompanying Younger during the explosion are Littlemore, and an enigmatic and beautiful French scientist and student of Madame Curie, Colette Rousseau. Her relationship with Younger has a fiery chemistry with lots of obstacles. And, using a motif from his former novel, we are introduced to another mute, this time Colette's young brother, Luc.
Rubenfeld straddles the investigation into the Wall Street attack with the story of Younger's relationship with Colette and Luc via a well-paced balancing act. Freud's presence will be included to help unravel the origin of Luc's muteness and try to cure it. Someone(s) is after Colette, it seems, and she is very close to not escaping dangerous villains. She is on a serious mission to explore the medical benefits of radium and raise money for Madame Curie's research, as well as find employment as a scientist again. Prior to WW1, she was at the Sorbonne. And--love story? We have a fetching love story, too.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, but with a bit of a caveat. Rubenfeld pulls off this byzantine plot handily, but with some sacrifice of character and some crowd-pleasing tidiness where I would have liked it messy. (I liked the messier first novel.) Younger, who is no longer the narrator in this omniscient perspective, comes across as a White Knight and brooding, taciturn hottie. That was quite a switch from his younger and more self-effacing and uncertain days. The war and maturation may have had an effect, certainly, but he was too predictable here.
Jimmy Littlemore was also a caped crusader of sorts, a committed family man with flawless scruples. No equivocations to his character, as he always took the moral high ground. The villains and white hats were often too clearly delineated, except where Rubenfeld decided to bait and switch. There were more obvious contrivances at work in this novel, which lent a more mainstream adjustment. And there were some hokey types used to drive the narrative action and plot tension.
The language occasionally felt too modern and anachronistic, speaking too closely in the verse of today. The author generally pulled back before going too far with it, but it did peal at times. For example,
"Germany hates us because we beat them. England and France hate us because we saved them. Russia hates us because we're capitalist. The rest of the world hates us because we're imperialist."
Finally, the ambiguities were conspicuously ambiguous and not sufficiently nettling or beguiling. Rubenfeld did most of the work for us, although it was impressive work. It was a dazzling ride through most of the story--a little boggy in the middle, but fine and tight at the end, and worth the investment. I'd like to see Rubenfled aim his concept just a little bit smaller the next time, furthering story lines about psychiatry--his forte--and give us some main characters with a bit more incertitude and mystique.
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Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 21, 2011 10:32:53 AM PST
Jill I. Shtulman says:
You're on a great roll, Bug. Your last two reviews are just outstanding and deserve the spotlight.
In reply to an earlier post on Jan 21, 2011 1:33:00 PM PST
Jill--wow--thanks so much. It means so much to me when a savvy reviewer with talent like yours says words like that to me.
I also didn't realize until Judi emailed me that he is married to Amy Chua, who just came out with a highly controversial memoir about parenting called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It came out 10 days ago and already 164 reviews!
In reply to an earlier post on Jan 21, 2011 8:32:20 PM PST
Bonnie Brody says:
Bug, This sounds like a book with everything - thriller, love story, history, psychology, espionage. Your review carefully dissects what sounds like a rather complicated book. Good going, my friend. Bonnie
Posted on Jan 21, 2011 9:21:47 PM PST
Bug: His first book sounds like too much for me to even contemplate understanding, but this one... wow... sounds great. Sorry, I've not been around lately.. new job... too much of a commute... ahhh, just hate a recession. Glad I stopped in.
Posted on Jan 22, 2011 8:53:46 AM PST
michael a. draper says:
A fine review, there is an ingredient here that would make a reader normally not interested in this subject, want to change their minds and learn more of what the novel has to tell us.
Posted on Jan 22, 2011 4:25:44 PM PST
Very good review, as usual, Bug. I enjoyed Rubenfeld's first book a lot; and your review makes it seem like I'll like his new book just as much.
In reply to an earlier post on Jan 22, 2011 9:57:48 PM PST
Bobbewig--I think you would really enjoy the cat and mouse chase mixed with historical fiction. Very illuminating. I enjoyed the ride! Give it a shot, for sure. It is solid and often quite charming. Just like yourself :--->>
Posted on Jan 22, 2011 10:00:09 PM PST
Burg--ouch! those long commutes really dampen a day. Have some good music to soothe the savage beasts of the road (myself included).
You always have an open invite! Thanks for saying hey.
In reply to an earlier post on Jan 22, 2011 10:02:01 PM PST
Bonnie--oops! I lent this book to a nurse friend who happened to be deployed during Desert Storm and lived at Fort Hood. She really wants to check it out. I am hoping to get it back and get it signed when the author comes to Austin. It is out now and very worth it!
Posted on Jan 31, 2011 7:19:00 PM PST
Roger Brunyate says:
I only skimmed this detailed review, Bug, because the period and dramatis personae suggest that this is a book I might well read for myself. From what you know of my taste, tell me if you think I would. Roger.