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The Soul Thief: A Novel Hardcover – February 12, 2008

2.8 out of 5 stars 39 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The author of the National Book Award–nominated The Feast of Love, Baxter returns with this ninth book, an assay into the limits of character, fictional and otherwise. The first half of the novel follows the brief arc of Nathaniel Mason's graduate career in 1970s Buffalo, N.Y., which centers on his friendship with the sexy but self-dramatizing Teresa (which she pronounces Teraysa, as if she were French) and her lover Jerome Coolberg, a virtuoso of cast-off ideas. Coolberg, obsessed with Nathaniel, begins taking his shirts and notebooks, and claiming that episodes from Nathaniel's life happened to him. Coolberg drops a hint that something bad will happen to Jamie, Nathaniel's sometime lover; when it actually comes to pass, Nathaniel's world begins to collapse. In the novel's second half, decades after these events have occurred, Coolberg enters Nathaniel's life again for a final, dramatic confrontation. Baxter has a great, registering eye for the real pleasures and attritions of life, but the book gets hung up on metafictional questions of identity (the major one: who is writing this first-person narrative?). The results cheat readers out of identifying with any of the characters, perhaps intentionally. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

Opening in gritty, nineteen-seventies Buffalo, Baxter’s suspenseful fifth novel concerns a mildmannered graduate student, Nathaniel, who falls under the spell of a cerebral but affected outsider, the aptly named Coolberg. Drawn to Coolberg’s sneering persona (and to that of his girlfriend, Theresa, who relishes Coolberg’s performances), Nathaniel begins to unravel when he learns that Coolberg is appropriating his identity: a burglar steals clothes from Nathaniel that Coolberg ends up wearing, and Coolberg begins claiming Nathaniel’s history for his own. Baxter’s talent for creating uncanny settings and telling details and his inventive way with language (a similarly dressed couple are "umbilicaled") are both on display here, but the conceptual twist at the novel’s end feels unequal to the dramatic tension that precedes it.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1 edition (February 12, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375422528
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375422522
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,839,842 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By S. F Gulvezan on February 24, 2008
Format: Hardcover
While I have followed Mr. Baxter's career with considerable interest, I'm sorry to say he has badly missed the mark with this effort. It reads rather like a short story that Mr. Baxter tried to stretch into a novel with unfortunate results. Who is the narrator? Where is the heart, not to mention the soul, of the book? These are the questions that I cannot answer. While the book starts out as a fairly realistic collegiate story, before long it congeals into a sort of miasma of existentialist pretentions. While Mr. Baxter's prose style is, for the most part, good, it is very hard to care about the characters and plot. Without these elements you are not left with much of a novel.
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Format: Hardcover
I like the flow of the story and how it tried to be unique and interesting, but in the end it confused me more then anything. Is it telling us we all grow up at some point, become adults and essentially become different people? Is it trying to convey deeper images and feelings meant to enlighten us? Just not sure how to take it. Otherwise not a bad read, it just leaves me hanging, maybe that's better then being spoon-fed what I'm suppose to get out of it.
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Format: Paperback
Charles Baxter's "The Soul Thief" has left me wondering what I must have missed. Baxter, after all, is a writer with a reputation, and one of his previous eight books, "The Feast of Love," was a National Book Award nominee. This is my first Charles Baxter book and, based on reputation and reviews of his previous work, perhaps I expected too much from "The Soul Thief." Whatever the reason, the book did not quite work for me.

The book's central character, Nathaniel Mason, is a 1970s graduate student in Buffalo, New York, a loner who unexpectedly meets a pretty girl while making his way to a rumored party location one rainy night. Little does he know that this girl, Teresa, and the young man to whom she introduces him, Jerome Coolberg, will conspire to steal the rest of his life from him.

Coolberg is so obsessed by Nathaniel that he almost immediately begins to make portions of Nathaniel's past his own, publicly claiming that the most dramatic events from Nathaniel's history actually happened to him rather than to Nathaniel. With a little help, Coolberg manages to secure some of Nathaniel's clothing and other personal items for his own use, pushing Nathaniel to the verge of collapse in the process, and uses the items to remake himself in Nathaniel's image.

The second half of "The Soul Thief" happens some two decades later when Coolberg calls the Mason home asking for Nathaniel. Nathaniel, who has never mentioned Coolberg to his wife in all the years they have been married, reluctantly agrees to meet in Los Angeles, hoping for the long overdue confrontation that will provide him answers to all the questions he has carried inside for so many years.
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Format: Hardcover
I really had to struggle to finish this book. I just didn't get it or find it believable. I wouldn't even know how to classify it. Science Fiction? Supernatural? I'm not even sure who was telling the story and half way through I just stopped caring. There were just too many metaphors and five dollar words. It seemed like the author was trying too hard to create something really profound. It just didn't work.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
If you're looking for a book that is ostracizing, inaccessible, and has terrible representations of the LGBTQ community, check this book out. Baxter wants people to notice how intelligent and cultured he is to the detriment of the novel. Most of the book is him referencing esoteric musicians, authors, philosophers, pop-culture ideas, and so on. His pretentiousness makes the book exhausting to read. And I generally can get down with pretentiousness. The lesbian character in his book finds that she needs to care for the protagonist's needs by sleeping with him. I definitely got the "there's-always-that-one-magical-penis-out-there-to-solve-lesbianism" vibe from this book. Baxter seems like a smart and talented enough guy, but this book was a waste of my Saturday afternoon. It's too bad because the premise of the novel is pretty interesting. This book just goes to show that even an amazing and thought-provoking idea can be ruined by hubris and misinformation.
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Format: Hardcover
Our hero, Nathaniel Mason, has a weak grasp on reality, doesn't understand the social interactions in which he is engaged, and resents or misunderstands those closest to him. To be fair, reality around Nathaniel is a bit skewed, his social interactions are hard to understand, and most of those closest to him are worthy of resentment and almost impossible to fathom. Nathaniel's nemesis, Jerome Coolberg, is a supremely confident intellectual conman. That Jerome wishes to appropriate Nathaniel's identity is the subversive joke that, at least early on, powers this book.

Pretty much everyone who reads this book ends up confused and ultimately at loose ends about what they have read. People who enjoy that feeling after reading a clever and challenging book, will probably like this book. Those who don't, won't. I'm happy to be played with by a smart book. I took my pleasures sentence by sentence where I found them. As for the larger questions - like plot, resolution and the like - well, this is a book about illusion, emptiness, delusion, pretending, deception, and maybe most of all - loneliness. That doesn't need a plot and there is no resolution.
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