A Regular Guyby Mona Simpson
Mona Simpson's first two novels, Anywhere But Here and The Lost Father, won her literary renown and a wide following. Now, in her third novel, the narrator Ann Atassi has been replaced by a third-person narrator recounting the adventures of young Jane di Natali, but the theme remains the same: the search for, and the attempt to understand, the/i>/i>… See more details below
Mona Simpson's first two novels, Anywhere But Here and The Lost Father, won her literary renown and a wide following. Now, in her third novel, the narrator Ann Atassi has been replaced by a third-person narrator recounting the adventures of young Jane di Natali, but the theme remains the same: the search for, and the attempt to understand, the absent father.
This time the father is a millionaire biotechnology magnate named Tom Owens. Into Owens's charmed life comes Jane, born out of wedlock, raised in communes, and now dispatched into his care by a mother who is no longer capable of providing it; Tom is far from ready for this responsibility. Fans of Simpson's previous novels will not be disappointed by this excursion into the cracked world of family relations.
"Simpson is an attentive observer and a fluent stylist, but it is the element of subtle surprise that draws us through these pages, the magnetism of an original mind that holds us fast."
Themes from the other novels continue to play out here, with the fractured family unit consisting of a mentally unstable mother, Mary, and her neglected daughter Jane, whom she drags with her on a restless, aimless jaunt through the Pacific Northwest after being rejected and virtually ignored by Jane's father, Tom Owens, an entrepreneurial wunderkind whose basement biotech venture grew into a major company, making him a millionaire and famous. When Jane is ten, Mary decides to take a break from parenting, so she teaches her daughter to drive and forces Jane to take their battered truck and go to Owens. Met first not by him but by his close friend, the wheelchair-bound biologist Noah, who takes her in, Jane is slow to gain her father's acceptance. He then brings Mary into town, sets her and Jane up in a bungalow, but attends to them fitfully, preoccupied with a new company that spun off from the old one after it went public, and with his leggy blond girlfriend Olivia, with whom he shares a decrepit mansion but for whom his feelings wax and wane. Eventually, Jane becomes Owens's confidante, just as his fortunes change: His parent company ousts him, and long-suffering Olivia walks out. Noah, on the other hand, has luck in love and in the lab, entering the limelight while Tom, who's married someone new and become a father again, sinks farther into the shadows.
A few events resonate powerfullyincluding an abortion Mary has (made to seem like Jane's decision), and the seduction of Noah at a Christmas partybut otherwise this is a tale too diffuse in the telling, which even the knowledge of certain roman à clef aspects can't overcome.
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He was a man too busy to flush toilets. More than most people Jane had known, he was oblivious to the issuance from his body that might offend. He didn't believe in deodorant and often professed that with a proper diet and the peppermint castile soap, you would neither perspire nor smell.
This inability, not just to pander, but to see any need to pander to the wishes or whims of other people, was unusual in a man who had political aspirations. It was fortunate, for him, that he was wealthy. Also, he was handsome, so even before his prosperity, he had not been lonely in love. His favorite art was art in the classical mode, particularly public art, in the form of monuments. He was as interested in the Louvre itself as he was in the paintings inside, which, beautiful as some were, and arresting, seemed to him just so many details. If a man wants the face of the earth to look different after his life upon it, he must think on a certain scale.
This afternoon he was taking his daughter to see the Eiffel Tower for the first time. Although he had limited patience for many things, he would never tire of showing places to his children--works, gardens or even states of feeling he had known. Someday, he would show her Italy. Next winter he intended to teach her how to ski. That, for the most part, made up what he believed a father should do for his children: introduce them to the wonders of the world.
And it was true, years later, long after she'd forgotten walking into the powder room while he was talking cross-continentally to his girlfriend too long on the phone, Jane remembered her father's tall form, riding with her in thecrushingly crowded elevator, to the second-to-top landing of the Eiffel Tower, then walking up the metal stairs in his slant way, standing on the top balcony, his longer-than-most-fathers-of-his-day hair whipping against his round forehead, lips pressed together in a kind of patriotic awe, a smile breaking down towards her. That was him. His hair disheveled by wind, his voice raised to be heard over nature, he strode at the very end of the balcony like the mascot on a ship, invested in the future of the world. He was an American industrialist, a believer in the potential accomplishments of state, and, in a way he couldn't explain, proud. He was her father. And they saw all of the planned city of Paris spread below them.
He whispered, "I'm kind of thinking of running for office. Hey, doesn't this remind you a little of the Statue of Liberty?"
He had just told her he might run for office. She assumed he meant running for president. It never occurred to her then that the choice would be anyone's but his.
That evening, in the hotel, he picked her book out of her hands, flipped through and then returned it. "Have you read anything by Abraham Lincoln?" he asked, dismissing the book issued by her old school. "You should read his speeches. I feel I can learn from people like Abraham Lincoln. See, I think it's individuals who make history." He paused a moment. "I think sometime when you're older, you're going to understand a lot better."
"I don't know, why I'm so busy. Why I wasn't always around when you might have wished I was." He knocked the cardboard cover of her book. "In school you study history; well, Genesis probably made a few of the great inventions of our time."
"It's a company."
"It's a company but it's more than a company." He fixed a look on her. She was too young to break in at the moment an adult would have, to force his own claims upon himself. His eyebrows went the way they did when he was serious. "You'll understand when you're older. A lot more about me.
"Here," he said, on the top landing of the tower, "we'll remember this." He pulled out two candy-colored franc notes, big bills, folded one into a paper airplane and sailed it down, over the metal railing. "Now yours."
"I'm keeping mine," Jane said.
Over the years, he took her to see the Empire State Building, the Lincoln Memorial and his favorite mountain lodge, built in the 1930s. He showed her Yosemite, his favorite place on earth, save home.
She led him, once, to an old abandoned factory at night.
"You like this?" he said, features like an owl's. "Why?"
"Never mind," she said, turning back, face parallel to the ground. She'd found it beautiful, the moonlight on hundreds of half-cracked-out windowpanes.
But he truly was only curious.
He made various thwarted efforts to erect his own monuments. All his life, he was impressed with architects and listened with his head cocked a certain way when they were talking, but each of their collaborations failed because the men he hired fell short of his standards and he did not have the time to direct the projects himself.
He bought a tower once, and he bought an orchard. He also owned a cave in Italy. Usually, he demanded that no statements involving money enter his sphere at all, but because of an odd carelessness of the accountant, Jane had seen a credit card bill on his dressertop. "Grotta, " it said, and then converted a phenomenal amount of lire into eighteen thousand American dollars.
When she asked him about it, his face changed, his lips self-happy, remembering. "That's where Olivia and I made love one time. We fell asleep on this little haystack right outside the cave. And then while she was asleep, I hid her dress."
All of these purchases took place when he was living in a drafty upstairs wing of rooms with a roof that leaked and floors that bloomed fungus and an outside terrace where weeds grew up, cracking the tiles. A colony of bees made their home in a corner of the dining room.
He was not--as she had long hoped--a man inclined to ordinary dwelling.
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