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The Life Room Paperback – November 3, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Bialosky falters in her maudlin second novel (after House Under Snow). An academic conference in Paris provides literature professor and New Yorker Eleanor Cahn the opportunity to escape from her humdrum husband and to stir up some long dormant passions. Along the way, the men of her past flood her memory: William Woods, Eleanor's confused and abused teenage boyfriend; Adam Weiss, a womanizing, married painter Eleanor posed for; and Stephen Mason, a childhood friend with whom she never quite connected. After the conference and back in New York, Eleanor agonizes over the life choices she's made and tries to find some balance between her longings and her responsibilities to her husband and children. Stephen re-enters her life, and the two conduct a tedious (and surprisingly nonphysical) affair. Through journal excerpts, e-mails and pictures, Bialosky tells a muddled tale burdened with hollow caricatures and overwrought dialogue. While Bialosky can produce intriguing turns of phrase (she has also published two poetry collections and is an editor at Norton), the novel remains largely unsatisfying. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
In her second novel, poet and fiction writer Bialosky portrays a married couple who embody contrasting scientific and artistic sensibilities. Michael is a straightforward cardiologist. Eleanor is an emotional literature professor excited and guilt-ridden as she leaves her two young sons and increasingly distant husband to go to Paris to present a paper about Anna Karenina. She exalts in her adventure, yet is assailed by unsettling memories of her doomed first love, her grad-school affair with a married painter, and enigmatic Stephen, the former boy-next-door who just happens to also be in Paris. With Anna Karenina as a template, adultery is the inevitable theme, but Bialosky's real subject is the vulnerability of the mind to fear and delusion. Treadmill passages and grating improbabilities detract, as does Eleanor's puzzling unawareness of just how seriously disturbed the men she agonizes over are. Yet Bialosky's brightly burning novel of desire and aberration, and a woman's quest for deeper understanding, is remarkable for its insights into erotic compulsion and the unbearable awkwardness and pain of flawed and failed love. Seaman, Donna --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Their home a veritable shrine to what might have been, Eleanor's mother endures migraines while a growing daughter seeks respite in the arms of lovers, from her first crush to an arrogant artist, settling finally for the security of heart surgeon Michael. That Eleanor has one blue eye and one green further illustrates the dichotomy of her existence, the internal war of appearance vs. reality, her husband unaware (and perhaps incurious) of the deep emotions that have so far failed to surface in the marriage. But Paris releases both memory and a yearning to delve once more into the explosive passions that surge beneath Eleanor's academic façade.
In Paris, Eleanor and her colleagues become individuals separate from their identities, temporarily unmoored from family ties and obligations, most evident in the journal Eleanor keeps while in that evocative city. Her bifurcated life revealed through the diary, Eleanor probes carefully hidden secrets, the power of memory exacerbated by a meeting with her first crush, Stephen Mason, the elusive former neighbor who slipped out of her life before Eleanor could determine the extent of her feelings. Stephen is the link, an early unfulfilled sexual awakening, the first male to fill the vacuum left by an errant father. Although Stephen clearly has a private agenda, he is a serious threat to Eleanor's hard-won security. The author thoroughly explores Eleanor's romances with flawed men who are either unavailable or unable to commit, loading the dice in favor of the sanctioned Michael. Without subtlety, Freud runs screaming from the room.
Bialosky's prose is riddled with angst. Are the demands of family more important than one's personal quest for fulfillment? Is the interior life a valid pursuit? Is the past more seductive than the present? Undoubtedly. Familiar questions, but in this case artfully imbued with the parallel of Karenina's great tragedy. Made more personal in the particulars of Eleanor's conflict, this modern woman, as both Madonna and lover, mother and wanton, is caught in a frantic dance on the head of a pin until she literally falls, exhausted into expectations. Luan Gaines/2007.
Eleanor Cahn is the protagonist in Jill Bialosky's second novel, The Life Room. Full-time literature professor, married and mother to two boys, Eleanor is about to take the trip of a lifetime....she is presenting a paper on Anna Karenina at a conference in Paris. She's torn about going. Eleanor feels what many women feel: torn and guilty for caring as deeply about her work (as a literature professor) as she does her husband and children. The novel opens with a bang and sets the stage for a modern dilemma.
Then I got to page 16 and the beginning of Chapter 4. Ignited by a call from her mother that her childhood friend and probably first love, Stephen, will also be in Paris, begins an excruciatingly long flashback that tediously accounts recounts the men in Eleanor's life. First there is Stephen; then her high school sweetheart, William; followed by her college affair with the married painter, Adam. It is Adam who introduces her to "the life room," but the concept is so esoteric that I could never firmly grasp what "the life room" was. The previews claimed there was a lot of eroticism in this work, but I found it woefully short.
Eleanor loves Paris, visiting the museums, presenting her paper (which she is then asked to turn into a book), discussing literature with colleagues (all whom seem American, which I found as rather odd). Still she is happy to come home and take up life where she left off.
Somehow, someway, Stephen shows up and begins to appear in different aspects of her life. Then there is more angst about why he is in her life filled in by flashbacks with William, but mostly Adam, and returned to present time with emails to one of her male colleagues she met in Paris.
Confused? Me too. I think the reader was supposed to feel the pull of work and home, past and present. More important I think the reader is supposed to feel that he/she too can feel both repulsed and raptured by the opposite sex when married. Eleanor seems fascinated with every man in her life but her husband.
Other than the hints that Stephen is a firebug, The Life Room has little going for it.
Armchair Interviews says: Heed this reviewer's advice.
Cheryl Renee Long