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The Short History of a Prince : A Novel Hardcover – March 24, 1998

3.6 out of 5 stars 74 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

As a teenager in Oak Ridge, Illinois, Walter McCloud is desperate for adventure, hoping for love and success as a dancer. "If life for Walter was composed in part of confusion, shame and deception, the ballet was order, dignity and forthright beauty." In 1995, at 38, nothing has turned out as he had expected. Having spent years working in a dollhouse shop in New York and engaging in that city's ready sexual excitement, Walter finally returns to his Midwestern roots, accepting a teaching job in Otten, Wisconsin--a place that might have little to recommend it save its proximity to his family's summer home. ("It had taken Walter several years to admit to himself that he couldn't go on indefinitely selling Lilliputian Coke bottles and microscopic toilet-roll dowels.") In this new community, he will have to keep his head down, a stance that has long suited him, because he prefers to hold one memory of lost intimacy and perfection in high, private relief.

Walter's exile, or new start, allows memory to come to the fore, particularly that painful year in which his brother was dying of Hodgkin's and he and his fellow dancers were dying for experience. Jane Hamilton explores the distance between desire and reality, satisfaction and secrecy, irresistibly alternating between past and present. At first, we can't wait for Walter to break through, and it's tempting to race through her prince's history--one which is, happily, not that short. But to do so would be to miss out on Hamilton's fine major and minor characters and her exploration of competition, complicity, and silence. At one point, Walter fears that his pupils have "no clue that there was pleasure to be found in observing character. They seemed to be afraid to look around themselves and find a world every bit as amusing, ridiculous and unjust as Dickens's London..." Hamilton's readers, however, will find this pleasure in abundance.

From Library Journal

Funny, complicated Walter McCloud is at the heart of this quiet interior novel, which gracefully wanders back and forth between two decades?Walter's early 1970s sophomore year in high school and his late 1990s stint as a small-town Midwest high school teacher. As Hamilton has shown in Map of the World (LJ 5/15/94), no one writes better of the abyss that cracks apart family members facing the loss of a child. As Walter's 18-year-old brother, Daniel, lies dying of cancer during much of the 1972-73 school year, Walter comes to grips with his own homosexuality and the inaccessibility of his parents, who are swallowed up in their grief. Walter's pivotal friendships with the beautiful Susan and Mitch, the boy they both love, sustains, shatters, and alters his sense of self as he stumbles toward adulthood. Hamilton's forte?depicting adolescents left not by villainy but by circumstance on the fringes of family life while they figure out ways to raise themselves?is at its most painful clarity in this novel. Highly recommended.
-?Beth E. Anderson, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., Mich.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 349 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (March 24, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679457550
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679457558
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 7 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (74 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,887,672 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Bruce E. Henderson on January 30, 2000
Format: Paperback
While this is a somewhat unorthodox basis for a review, I'd like to state that I went to high school with Jane Hamilton and knew the people who were the basis for Walter, Mitch, and Susan. I respect readers who found the book a departure from Hamilton's technique and usual settings (3rd person, male-centered, suburban rather than 1st person, female-centered, rural) and who found Walter a difficult character to like. At the same time, less in the spirit of a review than in clarification, I can say that the man who was the basis for Walter was charming and vulnerable, while also being self-centered, and he did talk exactly the way Hamilton has him talk in the novel. Further, the assumption that Hamilton doesn't understand the nuances of a gay man does seem provincial to me--should Flaubert not have written "Madame Bovary," then? And those readers who use their own heterosexuality as an excuse for not liking the book--well, that reflects your own limitations more than Hamilton's or the book's. I found this book more of a struggle than her earlier ones--domestic violence and child death/abuse are more engaging topics for the majority of readers, weened on Oprah and Sally Jessy, et. al., than the struggles of a gay boy in search of self. But it finally is worth the effort--and I think Hamilton's enormous insight and empathy achieves a depth of feeling for Walter lacking in most Gen-X fiction by gay men I have read. And I will say this--I know one young man this book gave enough courage and self-reflection to to permit him to come out to himself and those around him. Does this make it great literature? Of course not--but it should make us think before we simply dismiss it because it doesn't immediately connect with the lives of middle-class housewives who all too willingly want only fiction that allows them to see themselves as victims or fairy tale heroines.
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Format: Hardcover
After finishing The Short History of a Prince, I have been ruined for other novels for a long time. I still feel like I'm living Walter's life with him. I felt close to almost all of the characters. Jane Hamilton worked magic with that book.
I am usually the type of person who stops reading novels if they are not up to my standards, or if they bore me. I could not put this book down. I lost sleep over it.
For many of you who felt that the characters were not real enough for you, I have to say that I suspect that your comments and attitudes reveal your homophobia. I mean, if we all read literature with characters who were similar to ourselves, we wouldn't have much to read at all! It made my heart soar to experience the "coming of age" of a homosexual character, and to read about love between partners of the same sex.
My recommendation to everybody is to open your minds a bit, and allow yourselves to experience beauty.
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Format: Hardcover
Unsuual characters, the kind you meet everday but never really think about, populate this amazing slice-of-life novel. For the reviewers who didn't get the point, I say "Look around you. Look at the people you think you understand. What stories do they hide deep in their souls?"
It's not just Hamilton's study of a gay man that wins my respect but her dead-on look at a woman (Susan) who can be cruel and self-centered while she is a loving a true friend. Or the neighbor who is a health-food freak and a chain smoker. Or the bi-sexual lover (Mitch) who can enter a gay relationship and then suddenly drop it like yesterday's newspaper. All of this is so real, so true to the way people really are.
This is a marvelously sensitive book full of humor and little truths that will have you nodding your head as you read.
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Format: Paperback
Without question, Jane Hamilton is one of my favorite authors (who could not be moved by "The Book of Ruth"?), but in "A Short History of a Prince", Hamilton rises to a new level of exquisite characterization. Hamilton's graceful lyricism is present as always, rendering the book a charming read whether or not you enjoy the plot - but it is nearly impossible not to do so. Anyone who has every participated in the arts, or at least coddled an impossible dream, can relate to the plight of Walter. In a world in which, tawdry, but uplifting "feel good" books crowd the shelves it is refreshing to read of one who struggles with a dream, fails to achieve it in the physical sense, and yet triumphs internally. Hamilton gently reminds us that true grace lies in humanity and true achievement in how we deal with others. It is a novel about subjects far deeper than dance and far more human than death. It is a novel about life.

Hamilton is a master of characterization. Ruth Grey and Matt (of "The Book of Ruth") are prime examples. But it is the character of Walter that stands out in my mind. He is one of the most fulfilling gay characters I've encountered in literature, proving once and for all, that literature with a gay central character need not be solely concerned with sex and relationships. Instead, Walter is a complex, lovable and slightly pathetic (in a good way, mind you) man who must deal with the real life tragedies of death in the family and unfulfilled dreams.

I enjoyed "A Short History of a Prince" far more than "The Book of Ruth" for several reasons. Partly because it was slightly easier to digest in its general lack of violence and dismal poverty, but mostly because I found Walter to be a character closer to my heart and self. I am not a gay man, but I felt more kinship with Walter than with Ruth. He is less specific than Ruth, more middle class, artistic and introspective. In short, he is me.
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