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Shipwreck Hardcover – September 23, 2003

3.3 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The moral disintegration of a man consumed by lust is the narrative frame of Begley's haunting new novel. Since the man, John North, is a celebrated author of literary novels, the subtext concerns the nature of the creative process. North tells his story to the nameless narrator in a series of monologues. In Paris after the publication of his new novel, North is interviewed by a young Vogue writer, Lea Morini, who later comes on to him in a blatant fashion. Although he has never been unfaithful to Lydia, the wife he adores-though she is a busy research physician, she selflessly caters to his demands-North persuades himself that a brief fling with Lea will revivify his work. Struggling with creative self-doubt, North also confesses to faults of selfishness, egotism, resentment and envy of Lydia's family, who are Jewish and wealthy, as compared to his own parents, who are old-guard Protestants. With scenes set in Paris, Martha's Vineyard, the Greek island of Spetsai, East Hampton and Hollywood, Begley enters Louis Auchincloss territory (although with sexual details that Auchincloss would never dream of), and proves himself an astute observer of different social classes and the minute variations in their behavior invisible to those outside the inner circle. But it's the meticulously revealed psychology of a man who doesn't like himself (yet believes that he's superior to most people) that propels the narrative here, as North surrenders to his prurient desire, while vowing that Lydia will never learn of his betrayal. Lea proves predatory in her pursuit, however, and the story's sense of dread and suspense mount as events move to a mesmerizing conclusion. Yet Begley ends the novel on a note of ambiguity, leading the reader to speculate whether the narrator is perhaps North's alter ego, and the entire story a brilliant exposition of the way authors can use the material of their lives to create brilliant fiction.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From The New Yorker

A happily middle-aged novelist of some repute wakes up one morning, decides his work is worthless (oh, those writers!), and immediately becomes embroiled with a young Frenchwoman who turns out to be both phenomenally demanding and, as things spiral downward, exceedingly difficult to shake. Havoc ensues—wild messages left on answering machines, illicit trysts in the Vineyard, a possible cooling off of his rich wife's affection. This predictable, curiously prurient tale—Begley's athletic bedroom scenes seem not so much experienced by the narrator as peered at by the reader—is dished up, over many hours, to an anonymous listener in a bar, apparently as a kind of Ancient Mariner Blue Plate special.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 243 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (September 23, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400040981
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400040988
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.9 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,932,415 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWER on October 4, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Just as he did in his 1996 novel, About Schmidt, Begley here provides another character study of a middle-aged man who doubts his success and questions his good fortune. John North, like Schmidt, faces a crisis of conscience, questioning every aspect of his life while trying to avoid the messy consequences of his betrayal of his wife and his marriage. In this elegantly written novel, Begley presents North as a New York writer whose novels have won prizes, but who has endangered all he values in life by succumbing to the sexually voracious appetites of Lea Morini, a French journalist who has interviewed him for the Paris Vogue magazine. Totally committed to preserving his marriage, North also believes that he can continue his relationship with Lea because adultery is wrong "only if it is discovered."
In a bar called, L'Entre Deux Mondes, a "place between two worlds," or no-man's-land, North tells the story of his dalliance with Lea to his alter-ego, a "man so like me in appearance and demeanor." Hypersensitive to nuances and observant of the smallest details, however dense he may be about his personal life, North gives insights into the creative process which ring with truth, however much he may rationalize and temporize about his emotional weaknesses. His satirical comments about literary awards, the juries which determine the prizes, and the play-acting which accompanies the prize announcements provide a sense of realism.
Although North leads his companion (along with the reader) to think that he succeeds in solving the problem of Lea in the end, the reader cannot be sure that this is really the case, or that the concluding plot twist is truthful.
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Format: Hardcover
Louis Begley's latest novel, SHIPWRECK, is a tour de force that captures the madness of a high-profile author caught in a torrid affair with another woman.
John North, Begley's protagonist in SHIPWRECK, seems to have it all. He has just been awarded one of literature's top prizes and he has an adoring wife. For the most part, North is living the American dream --- that is until one day in Paris when he begins to question the value of his work while waiting for a writer from Vogue magazine.
Lea, the young journalist, is immediately starstruck with North's presence and decides he must become another addition to her long list of conquests. Meanwhile North, who is old enough to be Lea's father, is completely smitten with the leggy French vixen and sparks begin to fly.
While it appears that North narrates SHIPWRECK while downing shot after shot of whiskey inside a mysterious Parisian café with another person, it doesn't take too long for the reader to realize that North is actually alone. Ultimately Begley, author of the highly acclaimed novel ABOUT SCHMIDT, allows the reader to decide whether or not North is talking to himself --- and that's the brilliance of this mesmerizing story.
Begley does a wonderful job portraying North's wife Lydia as the ultimate victim of his extramarital activities. North cheats on his wife throughout the novel with Lea, but he doesn't deny for a second that his adulterous behavior is wrong. Even while North enjoys the numerous trysts with Lea, he never stops thinking about his wife and realizes from the onset of the affair that he's headed for troubled waters.
Not only is North grappling with the realization that he's in over his head with the affair, he is also constantly questioning the value of his literary career.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is yet another of of Begley's adultery, I won't get caught, man sneaks out on wife, stories. The twist here is that the girl friend gets caught bad, I mean bad. It's annoying that the protagonist is always saying that this girl will do anything, without alluding to what that might be. One wonders if he knowns stuff beyond the missionary possition. Anyway the characters are much more unidimensionable than in any of his other books so if you have to miss one of Begley's miss this one. Unless tricking the girl into taking the punishment amuses you.
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Format: Paperback
I think I'm going to enjoy writing about Louis Begley's 'Shipwreck' more than I enjoyed reading it. Probably a lot more. There's so many ways to describe why I was so disappointed in this book.

The main character, and essentially the narrator of the story (though it's told through the filter of a mostly-silent third party), is John North. North is a published author of several novels of critical success and a faithful, loving husband to Lydia. Faithful, that is, until he meets young journalist Lea and begins an affair with her.

The disappointing part was that this had potential to be a good story - potential that went unrealized for the most part. 'Shipwreck' has a good ending, I will give it that, but getting there is simply a chore, and the payoff isn't worth the extra effort.

The story is basically a character study, but the main problem is that John North isn't an interesting enough character to merit a study of such length. North is neurotic and arrogant and prissy, which would all be fine if he had something interesting to say - but he doesn't. He questions and doubts and bends over backwards trying to gaze into his own navel constantly. His neuroses infect every aspect of the story and his passions are as tepid as the coffee you forgot to drink earlier this morning.

North cannot seem to say something straight out - he wanders from point to point as he tells his tale, bouncing off tangential stories often. This reminded me of the wanderings of Jose Saramago, who often rambles on as well. The sharp contrast is that Saramago wanders into flights of fancy and imagination crafted in language that makes you want to weep, while North, in Begley's hands, rambles deeper and deeper into the mundane.
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