Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Short History of a Prince

I was beginning to wonder if I would hit fifty books this year but at the rate I'm going I should be able to catch up. Next on my reading list via the bookshelf of mom was "The Short History of a Prince" (349 pages)by Jane Hamilton. From Goodreads:

"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."

Hamilton's novel is a nice little story about family and loss and one's perception of failure. As the book's dust cover states: "With compassion and humor, and alternating between Walter's adolescent and adult voices, the novel tells of Walter's heartbreak as he realizes that his passion cannot make up for the innate talent that he lacks." What I really like among all the grief and reflections of the past is the revelation by Walter that maybe one can be happy with simply a place to live, a boyfriend, and a dog.

I've read through some other reviews that this novel requires some "heavy lifting" by the reader. I didn't find this to be the case. Hamilton's style is full of detail and rich characters but I think this enhances the simple story of Walter McCloud and two years in his life from two different decades. I also appreciated that many parts of the story took place in Chicago. How can this be bad thing? Recommended.

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