Exiles in the Garden [NOOK Book]

Overview

“One of the most astute writers of American fiction” (New York Times Book Review) delivers the resonant story of Alec Malone, a senator’s son who rejects the family business of politics for a career as a newspaper photographer. Alec and his Swiss wife, Lucia, settle in Georgetown next door to a couple whose émigré gatherings in their garden remind Lucia of all the things Americans are not. She leaves Alec as his career founders on his refusal of an assignment to cover the Vietnam War — a slyly subversive ...
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Exiles in the Garden

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Overview

“One of the most astute writers of American fiction” (New York Times Book Review) delivers the resonant story of Alec Malone, a senator’s son who rejects the family business of politics for a career as a newspaper photographer. Alec and his Swiss wife, Lucia, settle in Georgetown next door to a couple whose émigré gatherings in their garden remind Lucia of all the things Americans are not. She leaves Alec as his career founders on his refusal of an assignment to cover the Vietnam War — a slyly subversive fictional choice from Ward Just, who was himself a renowned war correspondent.
At the center of the novel is Alec’s unforeseen reckoning with Lucia’s long-absent father, Andre Duran, a Czech living out the end of his life in a hostel called Goya House. Duran’s career as an adventurer and antifascist commando is everything Alec’s is not. The encounter forces Alec to confront just how different a life where things—“terrible things, terrible things”—happen is from a life where nothing much happens at all.
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Editorial Reviews

Sven Birkerts
For a nation so besotted with politics, we have very few novelists who address the treacherous interface between public and private spheres, probing the implications of accountability. Ward Just is a distinguished exception…Just's novel addresses power, but not in its deployment. Rather, Exiles in the Garden seeks to understand the individual's ability—and will—to make a full self-accounting and to act accordingly. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the unlived life, examined, yields a stark cautionary wisdom.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Few if any novelists have captured Washington politics with the astute insights of Just, who here casts his dispassionate eye on a man who comes to question whether one can achieve a well-lived life on the outskirts of political action. Born and bred to the political arena, Alec Malone, son of a powerhouse U.S. senator, becomes an outsider twice removed, first by choosing photography as his profession and then by turning down an assignment in Vietnam. Content with his wife Lucia, the daughter of a Czech refugee, Alec dislikes the neighborhood cocktail parties, where a cosmopolitan mix of émigrés and exiles makes Lucia aware of the cultural chasm running through her marriage. Alec is devastated when she leaves him and bemused when, much later, his daughter follows in Senator Malone's footsteps, though it's the sudden appearance of Lucia's long-lost father that provokes Alec to question the meaning of an existence that has avoided the barricades. Just writes with confidence and authority as he works through larger themes of politics, history, war and historical judgment. This intellectually rigorous narrative is absorbing, timely and very Washington. (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Old men's memories of making history overshadow their children's less dramatic lives. A U.S. senator for 54 years, Kim Malone was, like his idol FDR, a liberal Democrat, a mover and shaker. Now Kim lies dying in a Virginia hospital, visited by his only child, Alec. His son disappointed Kim twice: by not following him into politics, and then, after becoming a well-regarded news photographer, by refusing an assignment in Vietnam. Despite these past disagreements, and their temperamental differences, father and son share a deep affection. Adopting different viewpoints, veteran political novelist Just (Forgetfulness, 2006, etc.) narrates with his trademark urbanity, moving from Kim's memories to those of Alec and his wife Lucia. Czech by origin, Swiss by upbringing, she too had an activist parent; her mother, a socialist, held salons in Zurich while the outdoorsy Lucia skied competitively until a severe accident changed her life. She was an au pair in the Washington home of the Swiss ambassador when she met Alec in the early 1960s. They married, had a daughter and bought a house in Georgetown. Then, over the fence, Lucia hears cocktail-party chatter from the Central European exiles of the title. It acts as a siren song for Lucia. She falls in love with Nikolas, a Hungarian professor/novelist, and they elope to Switzerland. Though devastated, Alec does not fight for her. He's an enigma, everyone agrees, and that's OK-so was Iago. But Othello's treacherous ensign was an enigma in action, while Alec is mired in passivity, a dull character in an unexamined marriage. A second old man restores some energy to this ragged story line. In a blatant contrivance, Lucia's long-disappeared father Andreshows up in a Washington boardinghouse. His experience as a partisan in Yugoslavia, fighting the fascists in World War II, bookends Kim's fights in the Senate; both men were committed to the struggle in a way Alec never managed to be. The least substantive of Just's recent novels. Author events in New York and Boston
From the Publisher
"Set mostly in Washington, it provides shrewd observations about that stiflingly self-centered capital and its public ways and private folkways....[Just] writes perceptively about the contrast between European and American values. Best of all is the epigrammatic quality his writing achieves" - Los Angeles Times

"Exiles in the Garden is [Just's] 16th novel and is, for my money, one of his three best, the others being "A Family Trust" (1978) and "An Unfinished Season" (2004)....he has a loyal following even in this difficult time for the book industry." - Washington Post

"cultured, beautifully controlled fiction....elegant" - Cleveland Plain Dealer

"The novel is fascinatingly readable and at the same time deeper than we expect....[Just] leaves us pondering that ageless question of where the personal becomes the political or if it is possible to maintain a distinction at all." - Miami Herald

"One cannot read the fiction of Ward Just without concluding that we are all expatriates, or, to crib from the title of his latest novel, that we are exiles in the garden of our lives." - Chicago Tribune


"Master novelist Just continues his commanding inquiry into the complexities of inheritance, politics, bloodshed, art, fame, and fate, taking measure of the everlasting wounds of war and moral compromise. A virtuoso writer of graceful wit and offhanded gravitas, Just tells this elegant yet harrowing tale of the entanglement of the personal and the geopolitical in sentences infused with the tensile strength of suspension bridges spanning earthly fire and the dark tides of the psyche."
- Booklist

"Just writes with confidence and authority as he works through larger themes of politics, history, war and historical judgment. This intellectually rigorous narrative is absorbing, timely and very Washington." - Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Ward Just's 16th novel offers further proof that, as much as any author working today, he writes for grownups. Exiles in the Garden is another of his intricate, intellectually challenging character studies that trades flashy action for a psychologically astute investigation into the deepest recesses of public and private morality....Ward Just began his career as a journalist and that training is evident in his keen eye for detail and his ability to penetrate to the essence of his subjects' lives. In characteristic meditative style, he reveals how the choices of his flawed, complex characters resonate down through the decades. His latest novel is one more brick in an edifice of work that someday should be read by historians looking for insight into the world of modern American politics and contemporary statecraft." - Shelf Awareness

The Barnes & Noble Review
Ward Just is our great Washington writer. Taking up where Mark Twain and Henry Adams left off, and alone among his contemporaries, he has held the field since the publication of his 1973 short story, "The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert," which dealt with the ambiguities of power and conflicts of conscience in the nation's capital during the Vietnam era. For Mr. Just, Washington is an atmospheric place of shadows and intrigue where larger-than-life characters, mostly grand old men, plot out the country's destiny in backrooms and the halls of Congress, at dinner parties and over the bodies of beautiful women.

His novel In the City of Fear, published in 1982, captured the climate of secrecy and betrayal in the city during the Vietnam War. In The American Ambassador(1987), set in Africa and Germany as well as Washington, he depicted the radical student movements of the times, in which privileged youths turned against men of power. In that novel, a son literally becomes a terrorist and plots to kill his own father, the eponymous ambassador.

But like all prolific writers -- he has now published 16 novels -- Mr. Just cannot help repeating himself, as he has done in this novel, both for good and for bad. At the center of the book is one of Mr. Just's archetypically conflicted characters, Alec Malone, the son of a senator, who disdains his father's profession of politics and instead becomes a newspaper photographer. (Before becoming a novelist, Mr. Just was a correspondent for The Washington Post; he covered the Vietnam War for the paper.)

To the chagrin of his father, Senator Kim Malone, Alec refuses an assignment to photograph the war in Vietnam -- for fear, it seems, that in doing so he will somehow glamorize the conflict. The senator is one of Mr. Just's grand old men; a onetime confidante of Franklin Roosevelt, he is a Shakespearean character, powerful and ruthless, who may have done some crooked deeds in his time, especially in an 1968 election back home in Chicago. (Mr. Just, whose family roots are in Illinois, has also written a splendid novel of Chicago politics, Jack Gance.)

Alec is married to Lucia, the daughter of a Czech Communist and anti-fascist freedom fighter who disappeared when she was a child. She's another distinctive Ward Just character, a beautiful Czech-Swiss woman who makes mordant pronouncements while consuming large amounts of alcohol. Lucia tells Alec that she once had a boyfriend who was "rough" with her:

She liked his roughness for a while and then she didn't like it. She felt manhandled. She said with a smile, That's enough. Ours was a Swiss story. Untranslatable.

A former ski champion, Lucia, improbably, teaches Alec about Walter Benjamin.

One of Mr. Just's distinguishing writerly characteristics is the presentation of speech without quotation marks, which lends his novels a certain opacity and a curiously muffled air. Lines of dialogue that on scrutiny might seem pretentious are, as a result of their unconventional display, oddly given a gloss of profundity. In one scene, for instance, Alec tells Lucia about spotting his old girlfriend and her husband on a street corner and stopping to ask them for directions. Lucia asks why he has told her the story. "Because it had life, Alec said" -- without quotation marks -- "Because it was genuine. Like the actors were genuine."

Mr. Just has always tended toward imprecision, sometimes to genuine poetic effect, allowing his readers to ponder for themselves the mysteries in his novels. But at times in Exiles in the Garden, the imprecision leaves us wanting more, as in the lingering unclarity concerning the past of Lucia's father, André Duran, which may, or may not, have included committing war crimes in Central Europe.

Eventually, Lucia leaves Alec for a Hungarian writer, taking their daughter, Mathilde, with her. Alec's reaction to their departure is oddly muted, and the novel jumps ahead in time to examine Alec's life as a much older man, one who is both actually and metaphorically losing his sight. Affected by an undefined malaise, he is suffused with nostalgia for the epoch when great men took chances and determined the history of nation states, and when -- closer to his own career -- photographers were really photographers: "He continued to look out the window at the quiet street and ponder decline," Mr. Just writes of Alec. "Weegee was dead. Diane Arbus was dead."

Then Lucia suddenly reappears in his life. She has found her long-lost father right there in Washington, living in an old-age home called Goya House, somewhat pretentiously, in reference to the Spanish's master's The Disasters of War; it is a place, apparently, where old communists and anarchists go to die. Lucia asks Alec to accompany her when she goes to visit him. The ensuing encounter with a father whom Lucia hasn't seen since she was three is somewhat unreal; she betrays barely any anger that André abandoned her. Instead, she listens patiently as the annoyingly self-centered figure recites stories of his exploits as a partisan and his imprisonments by the Nazis and the Soviets. While his effect on his daughter is limited, the old man seems to inspire in Alec an increased sense of the futility of his own life. The senator's son realizes that he, unlike André or even his father, has avoided conflict at the cost of a perpetual emptiness and disquietude.

But there is a vagueness here, an obliqueness in the writing. It is as if Mr. Just, by employing his distinctive literary methods of allusion and indirection, has sought to give the novel a moral depth that in the end it doesn't earn. His reluctance to confront Alec's dilemma head-on renders him a shadowy figure who never really flickers into life.

Despite this weakness and the flatness of the two central characters, however, the book is filled with Mr. Just's wonderful descriptive writing. He can magically evoke the dense fragrant summer evenings of Georgetown, as when Alec and Lucia sit outside and overhear the cocktail parties of the exiles in the garden next door (evenings from which the novel gets its title): "In early evening, the garden in deep shadow, the rose petals seemed to Alec to assume fantastic shapes," Mr. Just writes. He goes on: "Then, round about six-thirty, they heard one voice and then another, a gathering chorus reminiscent of the chattering of songbirds at sunrise."

The novel ends with the aged Alec vacationing with a new lover in Maine, and here Mr. Just is at the height of his powers. "At dead calm the ocean did not move at all," he writes as Alex sits staring out at the sea, "the only sensation that of depth and tremendous weight."

"Then," writes Mr. Just, "the water seemed to have an ominous potential behind an uneasy truce, the sense that in an instant and without warning the water could begin to heave and swell with who knew what consequences."

In this beautifully written passage, the author captures the pregnant and, unfortunately, unrealized promise of his novel. Mr. Just is trapped here by his own considerable talents. --Dinitia Smith

Dinitia Smith is the author of three novels, and a former arts correspondent for The New York Times, where she wrote on literature.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547394374
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 7/1/2010
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 532,935
  • File size: 207 KB

Meet the Author

WARD JUST's seventeen previous novels include Exiles in the Garden, Forgetfulness, the National Book Award finalist Echo House, A Dangerous Friend, winner of the Cooper Prize for fiction from the Society of American Historians, and An Unfinished Season, winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award and a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize.

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Read an Excerpt

Especially when he was alone Alec Malone had the habit of slipping into reverie, a semiconscious state not to be confused with dreams. Dreams were commonplace while his reveries presented a kind of abstract grandeur, expressionist canvases in close focus, untitled. That was how he thought of them, and not only because of the score in the background, German music, voices, trumpets, metronomic bass drums, and now and again the suggestion of a tango or a march. The reveries had been with him since childhood and he treated them like old friends paying a visit. The friends aged as he did, becoming increasingly abstract now that he had begun to lose sight in his right eye, a hole in the macula that began as a pinprick but was now the size of an o. That eye saw only the periphery of things with any clarity. The condition was annoying, not disabling, since sight was a function not of one eye but of two and Alec’s left eye was sound. However, driving at night was an adventure. He did not permit himself to drive in fog because objects had a way of vanishing altogether. And there was some amusement — when he closed his left eye and looked at a human face with his right, that face appeared as an expressionist’s death’s-head, an image very like Munch’s The Scream.
     Alec had the usual habits of one who lived alone: a fixed diet, a weekly visit to the bookstore, a scrupulously balanced checkbook, and a devotion to major league baseball and the PGA Tour. He worked when he felt like it. He described himself to himself as leading a chamber-music sort of life except for the Wagnerian reveries. They were neutral fantasies, meaning they had nothing to do with the life he wished he had led — Alec was quite content with the one he had — or might lead in the future. He did not count himself a prophet. He returned often to his childhood but rarely lingered there. His childhood was so long ago that the events he remembered most vividly seemed to him to have happened to someone else and were incomplete in any case, washedout colors side by side with ink-black holes, a half-remembered country governed by a grim-faced man with a long nose, a figure from antiquity, perhaps a bildnis from Dürer’s sketchbook. Alec considered the long-nosed man a family heirloom, grandmother’s silver or the pendulum clock on the mantel, the one whose ticks and tocks sounded like pistol reports. He lost his footing in those early years in which the domestic life of his own family was usurped by the civic life of the nation. That was the life that counted. The Malone dinner table, his father presiding, was a combination quiz show and news conference.
     Quick now, Alec. How many congressional districts in Iowa? Which nations were signatories to the Locarno Pact? Who wrote “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burned women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears”?
     What was Glass-Steagall? Who was Colonel House?
     Where is Yalta?
     Question: What’s the difference between ignorance and indifference?
     Answer: I don’t know and I don’t care.
     Hush, Alec. Don’t disturb your father when he’s talking to Mr. Roosevelt. Don’t you know there’s a war on?
     À la recherche du temps Roosevelt. The president inhabited the house in Chevy Chase like a member of the family or a living god, present everywhere and visible nowhere. Alec’s father called him the Boss. The Boss wants this, the Boss wants that. The Boss sounded a little tired today but he’s leaving for Warm Springs tomorrow. In his reveries Alec conjured the president in his White House office, talking into the telephone in his marbled Hudson River voice, commanding an entire nation — its armies, its factories and farms, all its citizens great and small. Yet Alec had no sense of him as a man — not then, not later — and when he tentatively asked his father, the reply was bromidic. He was great. He was the greatest man his father had ever met, and he had met many, many of the highest men in the land, shaken their hands, spoken tête-à-tête, worked with them, worked against them. The Boss was different. The Boss lived on a different level, deriving his strength and his courage from — and here his father faltered, uncomfortable always in the realm of the mystical. Finally he said, His legs are useless, you know. He can hardly walk. But he likes a martini at the end of the day just like the rest of us, and there the comparison ends. Alec, I’d say he’s Shakespearean. That’s the best I can do.
     Alec nodded, wondering all the while which of Shakespeare’s kings his father had in mind — Macbeth, Richard III, Coriolanus? Henry V, no doubt, though that comparison did not seem apt. Shakespeare’s kings suffered the consequences of their will to power. The will to power was the evil in them, not that they did not have ample assistance from others — wives, false friends, rivals, the Fates. When the president died Alec’s father was inconsolable. Washington was suddenly a darker, lesser place. Then he was summoned by Harry Truman — they had never gotten along — who extended his hand and asked for help, not an easy thing for him to do. Mr. Truman was a prideful man, often vindictive. Of course Senator Malone agreed to do whatever Mr. Truman wanted done. There was a war on. Each man did his part willingly. But it wasn’t the same.
     For years Franklin D. Roosevelt figured in Alec’s reveries but eventually faded as Alec drifted upward, forward to his young manhood and early middle age and beyond, what he considered his meridian years — when he was out of his father’s house, out of his orbit, out from under, married to Lucia Duran and working in what his father dismissively called “snapshots” but which everyone else called photography. His father wanted his boy to follow him into politics, commencing a dynasty; state attorney general, his father thought, then governor, and after that anything was possible. The Boss had been a governor.
     No, Alec told his father.
     But — why ever not?
     I don’t believe in dynasties, Alec said, which was the truth but not the salient truth. The salient truth was that the civic life of the nation held no attraction. He preferred Shakespeare’s life to the life of any one of his kings or pretenders, tormented men always grasping for that thing just out of reach. Deluded men. Men adrift on a sea of troubles, some of their own making, some not. In any case, the Fates were in charge, part of the human equation along with ambition and restlessness. Alec was satisfied with his photography and his reveries, including the mundane, the look of ordinary things and the time of day, what the weather was like outside and who was present at the occasion, a cat slumbering in a splash of bright sunlight, red and yellow roses proliferating. Life’s excitement lay just outside the frame of reference, grandeur felt but not seen yet grandeur all the same. Alec’s reveries were his way of bringing life down to earth, so to speak.
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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted January 17, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Something to Ponder

    Exiles in the Garden was the first book I have read by Ward Just but will not be the last! I am slowly making my way through his previous novels & enjoying each & every one. I normally would not choose books about politics but find Just's characters so real that I am drawn into their lives, truly caring about how they feel. For me, the political & historical content is almost secondary, although none the less important.
    The conflict that Alec experiences in this novel is typical of many of Just's characters, I now realize, but rather than criticizing the author for this repetition, as one of the reviewers has done, I find this commonality reassuring in that we all try to come to grips with our past & present circumstances.
    I think the lack of quotation marks is refreshing &, in my opinion, resemble a stream of consciousness delivery. Just's wonderful descriptive writing make the settings come alive & having lived abroad, I can relate to the differences in countries & cultures while the similarities in human feelings exist.
    I also like the fact that the author does not tie all the knots or bring the endings to a satisfactory climax, but shows respect for the reader's intelligence, allowing them to come to their own conclusions...or not. Most refreshing.
    Ward Just is my new favorite author:)

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 25, 2011

    great book

    this is a wonderful read. washington atmosphere, intrigue, interesting male characters...

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